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Rising demand for critical minerals fuels human rights concerns in mining sector

As the world accelerates the deployment of clean energy technologies, the demand for critical minerals used in these technologies has surged. However, new data indicates that this demand has been accompanied by an alarming increase in human rights abuses linked to the extraction of these minerals.

Data from the Transition Minerals Tracker, compiled by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), reveals over 630 allegations of human rights violations associated with mineral mining since 2010. Notably, 91 of these allegations were reported in the past year alone.

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The tracker focuses on human rights abuses related to the extraction of seven key minerals, including copper, lithium, and bauxite—essential for producing solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and other clean energy technologies. The latest data highlights widespread violations, particularly affecting Indigenous communities, including forced relocations, water pollution, and denial of access to traditional lands. Additionally, there have been reports of attacks on human rights defenders and significant worker rights abuses.

Since 2010, there have been 53 reported work-related deaths in the sector, with 30% of these deaths reported in 2023 alone. According to Caroline Avan, BHRRC’s head of natural resources and just transition, the situation shows no signs of improvement. “The sector is blatantly failing to protect those who generate its profits, and this is only the tip of the iceberg,” Avan said. She added that many abuses go unreported because the data relies on public information, suggesting that the true scale of the problem is much larger.

The BHRRC has given companies the opportunity to respond to the allegations it documents. Remarkably, ten companies, including China Minmetals, Glencore, Grupo Mexico, First Quantum Minerals, and Solway Group, are linked to over half of all allegations since 2010. Almost half (46%) of the reported abuses originate from South America. Avan noted that many abuses follow a pattern of initial environmental violations, such as water or soil pollution, which are often compounded by inadequate consultation with local communities, leading to prolonged conflicts.

One prominent case is the Las Bambas copper mine in Peru, owned by MMG Ltd., whose major shareholder is China Minmetals Corporation (CMC). Previously controlled by Glencore, Las Bambas has faced numerous allegations of human rights abuses, not only in 2023 but also throughout the tracker’s entire 13-year monitoring period. The mine’s infrastructure, activities, and expansion plans have caused social and environmental impacts, prompting protests and blockades by Indigenous communities. In November, 1,500 workers went on strike, demanding a larger share of the profits.

Despite these serious allegations, CMC, MMG, and Las Bambas have not responded to the BHRRC.

Increasing scrutiny and new global principles

The persistence of human rights abuses in the mineral mining sector is drawing increasing attention, especially as the International Energy Agency predicts that mineral demand for clean energy applications will grow 3.5 times by 2030.

The BHRRC report highlights that the mining sector is under mounting pressure from civil society, Indigenous peoples, and global policymakers to enhance human rights protections. For instance, the new EU Batteries Regulation, adopted last July, requires end-users of battery minerals to conduct thorough supply chain due diligence.

Avan noted that while the automotive industry is beginning to demand higher standards from upstream mining companies, the renewable energy sector has not yet done enough to ensure that their mineral suppliers are not linked to human rights abuses. Last month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched a high-level panel on Critical Energy Transition Minerals to develop global principles for safeguarding environmental and social standards and embedding justice in the energy transition.

Guterres emphasized that supply chains must be managed properly to ensure that developing countries benefit fairly and that both the environment and human rights are protected. “Too often, the production of these minerals leaves a toxic cloud in its wake: pollution; wounded communities, childhoods lost to labor, and sometimes dying in their work,” he said. “This must change… The race to net zero cannot trample over the poor.” The panel is expected to present its initial recommendations ahead of the UN General Assembly in September.

Avan expressed concern that countries in the Global North are hastily forging strategic partnerships with resource-rich countries in the Global South to secure mineral supply chains, without sufficiently demanding human rights protections from the companies involved. The BHRRC report suggests that companies should adopt human rights policies and ensure that affected communities share in the benefits and governance of projects.

Avan emphasized the need for stronger government regulations and better business practices to ensure that the global energy transition is fair and centered on respect for human rights, fair negotiations, and shared prosperity. “The alternative is rising resistance, conflict, and distrust, which threatens to slow the pace of the transition,” she added.

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