Nibi Chronicles: The nation-to-nation fight against extractivism

Nibi Chronicles: The nation-to-nation fight against extractivism
March 28, 2024 Staci Lola Drouillard

Ricky DeFoe can tell you all you need to know about fresh water on Earth in one minute or less. He rattles off that “70% of our planet — our Mother Earth is water. Ninety-seven percent of that water is saltwater. That leaves just 3% freshwater — 1% is in the atmosphere, 1% is subsurface, and 1% is on the surface. So, of that 1% of surface water, 10% is Gichigami — Lake Superior,” which he fondly calls “the great sea of the Ojibwe.”

A Fond du Lac Ojibwe elder and life-long water rights advocate, DeFoe recently returned from across the ocean after a visit to Serbia along with a coalition of other water protectors from Minnesota. Their purpose was to attend Green Horizons Academy of Green Europe and visit the Indigenous community of Gornje Nedeljice, a village of 700 people who have successfully fought off the trans-national mining giant Rio Tinto, and the corporation’s quest to build a lithium mine in the Jadar Valley of western Serbia. At least for now.

As DeFoe explains, “that community is fighting that — the whole country is fighting that. And they’ve announced that all contracts with Rio Tinto were annulled by the past administration there. But now they’ve got a new administration coming in. So, the challenge is still there in front of them.”

The focus on building new mines in Serbia and elsewhere is connected to the push for extracting lithium, nickel and other metals related to “green energy” initiatives and the transition from fossil fuels toward electrification. According to DeFoe, if the mine is permitted at Gornje Nedeljice, “their whole community will be devastated.”

Ricky DeFoe in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo courtesy of Allen Richardson)

Extractivism’s devastating effects might be coming to communities much closer to home. Rio Tinto has plans to build a mine in Tamarack, Minnesota, located within the Mississippi and St. Croix River watersheds, and just a few miles from the Mille Lacs and Sandy Lake Ojibwe communities. This is also a big reason why DeFoe and the Tamarack Water Alliance made the trip to Serbia. Because if the Serbian people can stop Rio Tinto over there, then he believes that they can be stopped here, too.

As he says, “we were the first international group to come to Serbia in support of their resistance efforts. So, that’s huge.”

Putting subsidies before environmental review

The Tamarack mine would be owned by Talon Metals in a joint venture with Rio Tinto. According to the Talon company website, they are headquartered between Tamarack and the British Virgin Islands. Rio Tinto is headquartered in London, United Kingdom, and is one of the world’s largest metals and mining corporations, founded in 1873. In 2023, according to Investopedia, the company made $50.55 billion in profit.

Just last month, Rio Tinto’s board approved the world’s largest mining project in the Republic of Guinea. A recent report from Human Rights Watch attempts to weigh the short-term approach used by mining companies like Rio Tinto that promise compensation for land and property in Guinea, with the long-term environmental needs required by subsistence-based industries like fishing and farming — which are reliant on clean water resources and land uncorrupted by the pollution that usually happens around mines. On March 6, 2023, The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged Rio Tinto with bribery involving a consultant in Guinea, due to violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).

The mining company’s proposal for Tamarack has not yet been permitted, nor have they submitted an Environmental Impact Statement, and yet Talon and Rio Tinto have already bought up 31,000 acres of private and state lands — the spatial equivalent to 85% of the city of Minneapolis. The effort has been bolstered by the push for expanded domestic mining and driven by the “green energy” sector.

Politically, water protectors have a big fight on their hands. Last year, The Biden administration agreed to subsidize Talon and Rio Tinto’s efforts, giving the company nearly $21 million for further nickel exploration under the Defense Production Act and about $115 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to build a metals processing plant in Beulah, North Dakota.

The nickel extracted at Tamarack would be used in the production of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for solar power storage and expand the production of electric vehicles. In fact, Tesla Corp. and Talon Metals have already set an agreement in motion that would provide Tesla with 165 million lbs. of concentrated nickel and other by-products (like cobalt, iron and copper). The contract is like a ticking time bomb that will explode in six years, if Talon Metals does not deliver the goods.

DeFoe believes that a rush to mine is not the best way forward toward a successful energy transition, especially when weighing the risks to water in the age of climate crisis. He says, “water is a critical life-giving resource. If we can imagine a hotter, drier future, clean water is going to be even more precious.”

He is also very clear about acknowledging the need for an energy transition, but believes there are better ways to achieve that, without putting Indigenous communities at risk.

“We support clean energy transition as a people, but we want to emphasize solutions to open pit mining — to extractivism,” said DeFoe. “Like recycling, there’s already robust markets for all that, and they will be expanded as time goes on. We want to focus on better ways to transition.”

According to the International Energy Agency, mineral demand just for electric vehicles and battery storage will leap tenfold by 2040, as a result of current energy and climate policies. But for the communities that will be most affected by new mining, extractivism is just adding to the problem of climate change. The communities that are under threat also want to ensure that the permitting process is not led by subsidies to mining companies with a proven record of environmental degradation, like Rio Tinto.

As DeFoe says, the permitting system should include thorough review: “we want to emphasize smarter subsidies, because Rio Tinto coming into the Tamarack watershed has already been subsidized heavily by this administration, they have already gotten monies, even before the environmental impact statements are out there. Any [impact] studies for us, must consider the future for our children — the most precious source of life we have.”

“These are not excuses for exploiting human beings and poisoning our water”

The political rhetoric around “cleantech” projects like the Tamarack mine asserts that they are key to revitalizing energy sectors and ensuring the nation’s energy security. Politicians are also quick to boast about job creation and expanding domestic mining to counter China’s dominance over the metals market. In fact, the biggest producers of processed lithium are China and Australia.

Again, DeFoe warns that “these crises, whether climate change or geopolitical — the wars that are waged for resources — these are not excuses for exploiting human beings and poisoning our water. So, we always say that we must have responsible mining.”

And what does that mean, to be responsible in our mining? For DeFoe, it means recognizing that short-term solutions should not be prioritized over the irreversible, generational loss of land and resources. At Tamarack, Talon Metals says the process could release up to 2.6 million gallons of water into the mine per day, mostly from aquifers disconnected from freshwater sources. Talon plans to pump that water to the surface, treat it through reverse osmosis or a similar process, and release it back into the adjacent wetlands, where it would feed into Big Sandy Lake and eventually the Mississippi River.

Here in Minnesota, we often tout our great number of lakes. Dependent on many of those lakes are the people of Anishinaabe Aki — those who live on or near one of eleven Native American Nations in the state of Minnesota. Seven are Ojibwe and four are Dakota. According to a Morgan Stanley research study, “Native American reservations are located within 35 miles of 97% of U.S. nickel resources, and 79% of its lithium resources.”

The lakes and lands at Mille Lacs and Sandy Lake not only support human beings but are also some of the most prolific wild rice waters in the Great Lakes Region, including East Lake, a culturally and spiritually significant place for Ojibwe people. East Lake is just 13 miles from the center of the proposed mining operation.

“I think the big thing is in our local communities, where we have the clean water and clean climate — one thing about being in Serbia in Belgrade, in particular — was the air pollution,” said DeFoe.
“So as Indigenous peoples — as treaty peoples, we have to have access to resources that are uncontaminated.”

For DeFoe, everyone is welcome to join in the fight against extractivism. He asserts that “when other nations — particularly the other ethnicities in America — stand by our side, and stand behind us as we fight for sovereignty and self-determination as indigenous peoples, here nation-to-nation, that we can win these fights against these international corporations.”

The Tamarack proposal is currently being reviewed by the Minnesota DNR. More details can be found at Water Over Nickel, an initiative of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Not Just Pretty Pictures: Bearing witness to the night sky

Nibi Chronicles: Violence in Ma’iingan Country

Featured image: World Water Protectors. (Photo courtesy of Allen Richardson)


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