When explosions coordinated by Rio Tinto, one of the world’s biggest mining companies, destroyed a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelter in Australia, Indigenous leaders took on the multinational corporation—and won. The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples argued that Rio Tinto never should have attempted to build an iron ore mine in the hillside of Juukan Gorge, a deeply significant site for their communities inhabited since the Ice Age. Facing pressure from shareholders,  parliamentary, and scrutiny from environmental and human rights activists like the London Mining Network, Rio Tinto apologized, paid restitution, ousted three senior leaders and two board members, and vowed to prioritize Aboriginal leaders as partners moving forward.

This story is both a cautionary tale and a charge for corporate leaders: Include Indigenous perspectives now, or wish you had later. The ongoing relationship between Rio Tinto and Aboriginal leaders is still far from perfect, but a new arrangement, which includes both compensation and consultation, represents a modicum of progress. It is an acknowledgment that companies can no longer disregard the respective rights and voices of local, Indigenous, and Afro-descendant tribal communities in tackling the most urgent business and environmental challenges.

Foremost among them: climate change. As leaders from government and the private sector convene for COP28 to find new frameworks for climate finance and a just energy transition, local and Indigenous voices must be front and center. And there must be a verifiable commitment to respect and protect their rights.

As an Indigenous environmental activist and the president of a foundation committed to climate justice, we call on businesses to recognize Indigenous peoples and local communities (IP and LCs) as key stakeholders—for the sake of people, the planet, and their profits.

Meaningful collaboration requires reckoning with centuries of exploitation and well-earned distrust. Governments, colonizers, and corporations have long claimed Indigenous land as effectively terra nullius, disregarding treaty rights and extracting resources with scant regard for the health of the land or the people who know it best. They drilled oil from sacred ground, razed ancient forests, and displaced entire communities, devastating generations of local and Indigenous populations and destroying ecosystems that stood as bulwarks against climate change.

The consequences of drilling for fossil fuels and depleting other resources are dire for both the planet and for Indigenous and local communities. Without partnership and consultation, even purportedly climate-conscious approaches can be devastating.

Nearly 70% of transition mineral projects, which mine components for batteries and other renewable energy technologies, are located on or near Indigenous land. If the private sector fails to fundamentally shift its approach to resource extraction and management, the climate agenda is on a collision course with Indigenous rights.

We’re already seeing what happens when sustainability-minded companies overlook Indigenous perspectives. Courts around the world are recognizing local and Indigenous communities as stewards of 80% of the planet’s remaining biodiversity.

Read the full article about Indigenous communities as environmental stewards by Darren Walker and Joan Carling at Ford Foundation.