Seeking Justice in Transitions: On Sámi and Mapuche Struggles with Green Colonialism

As climate-related research warns us, the need for a transition towards fossil-fuel-free ways of producing energy is undeniable at this point in history. Larger numbers of communities are demanding access to energy, and the so-called developed world continues consuming simply too much energy. This last Earth Day, we saw thousands mobilizing to push governments towards decarbonizing economies, and the sense of urgency activists invoke is backed-up with scientific data that indicates that the changes in our socio-technological landscapes must occur now.[1] While the rising market of clean and renewable energy seems to answer to this sense of immediacy, some of these projects push green economies at the expense of people’s rights and perpetuate the extraction and use of rare minerals that are not renewable. This can lead to the reproduction of old colonial forms of relating to the land, a form of green colonialism that threatens to taint environmental efforts for a fair and efficient transition; thus what such projects offer are ultimately false solutions.

Occupying the Ministry of Oil and Energy in Oslo, the eruption of protests from Sámi groups against these practices poses an important ethical question about climate change action: are we willing to compromise justice in the race for renewable energy? The protests, mainly led by young activists, mark more than 500 days since the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled the granting licenses for the installation of wind farms in Fosen as illegal, which curbed the rights of the Indigenous South Sámi reindeer communities on the peninsula. Neither the company nor the government have taken any concrete action to solve the issue.

Whereas this has drawn international attention, Statkraft, the company in charge of these projects, extends its operations beyond Norway. Similar hegemonic impositions and dismissals of Indigenous perspectives have characterized the presence of the Norwegian state-owned wind, solar and hydropower company in Latin America. This region, historically exploited for extraction purposes, has seen since 1975 the construction of more than 400 hydro energy projects that displace communities of people and ecosystems in its massive demand for territory.

Latin America has a large history of colonialism, which took a different shape in the C20 with the boom of other exploitative projects for foreign investment. The presence of hydropower has put the lives and cultures of Indigenous people once again at risk. Specifically, the Mapuche people in the vicinities of the Chilean river Pilmaiquén have resisted since the beginning of the construction of two hydroelectric plants in 2009 that directly interfered with their cultural and economic activities, that is, caused the destruction of their sacred river, where many rituals are carried out, providing material and spiritual sustenance. The Mapuche people have been actively resisting this installation by the Hidroelectrica Pilmaiquen S.A, a company now owned by Statkraft.

The protests have prompted the company to reorient its narrative, claiming to have conducted talks and reached agreements, of which little record is held to corroborate these claims. Moreover, as a study by Eva Maria Fjellheim regarding Sámi reindeer experiences shows, state and corporate-led dialogues can “displace the root cause of the conflict, reveal epistemic miscommunication, and perpetuate relations of domination which have limited emancipatory effects” for Indigenous communities.[2] In the context of international law, both Chile and Norway have violated international agreements, namely the ILO Resolution 169 (1989) that they have ratified and that grants Indigenous people sovereignty in their territories. It is clear that such responses and narratives of dialogue often translate into empty rhetoric, symbolic gestures, and little political will.

Amid this panorama of systematic violation of Indigenous rights, creating solidarity networks that acknowledge the intersectionality and complexity of these decarbonizing aspirations is imperative for building environmental justice. What better form to engage meaningfully in collectively designing our energy futures than listening to and working with the knowledge from groups that have for centuries effectively protected nature and continue reminding us that human and nonhuman wellbeing are deeply interconnected. The cultural, spiritual, and ethical considerations emerging from Indigenous perspectives must be central in any true aspiration for deep environmental restoration, even if technocratic regimes seem to dominate our current efforts. This does not mean to undermine energy transition projects which already deal with resistance from conservative sectors, but a reminder that we need to ensure that the transition is just, that it respects the land and includes the local, especially the Indigenous communities, in decision-making processes.

While this piece has provided some introductory points to the problems, we are eager to welcome a Mapuche delegation to Trondheim in the upcoming week (on May 5, 2023) to explore the questions at hand in person. During this event organized by ENVIROCEN and Latin-Amerikagruppene i Norge, we will discuss the potential of Sámi and Mapuche alliances for cross-cultural and transnational collaboration towards a more equitable and sustainable future. Moreover, to challenge narratives of false dialogue, we will delve into humble approaches and practices of solidarity, reflecting on how truly just transitions require the active participation and recognition of knowledge, values, and practices of Indigenous peoples. It promises to be a fruitful conversation grounded in a commitment towards climate justice for all.

Written in collaboration with Agata Kochaniewicz and Henrikke Sæthre Ellingsen.
For more information on the May 5, 2023 event, click here.

[1] Urgency is, of course, part of a bigger discussion: urgency for whom? There is a body of literature on Indigenous critique of time and urgency in climate action revolving around the fact that Indigenous communities have long experienced climate change and adapted to the changes for centuries. Philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte, for instance, has written extensively about this matter.

[2] Fjellheim, E.M. (2023). “You Can Kill Us with Dialogue:” Critical Perspectives on Wind Energy Development in a Nordic-Saami Green Colonial Context.” Hum Rights Rev., 24, 25-51. 

*Cover image credit: Picture on the left with young activists by Amanda Orlich; on the right with the Mapuche ritual in the river by Pablo Piovano.

[*Cover image description: In the picture on the left, a group of seven young protesters are sitting on the floor with two police officers facing them; in the picture on the right, two people are looking at a group of four others standing in a river.]

Edited by Trang Dang, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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