Thinking about Ecosocial Transition: Lithium and Energy Colonialism

Lithium as a field of dispute

Three years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘new normal’ has emerged with signs of chaos and instability. This new global status quo reflects the worsening of several intertwined crises – social, economic, political, ecological, health and geopolitical – which also have a civilisational dimension. In the midst of this polycrisis, we live with the constant danger of rapid escalation between these dimensions.

The war in Ukraine exacerbated both traditional extractivism and new extractivism associated with the corporate ‘green transition’. As we say in the Manifesto for a Ecosocial Energy Transition of the South:

What’s new about this current moment is the ‘clean energy transitions’ of the North that have put even more pressure on the Global South to yield up cobalt and lithium for the production of high-tech batteries, balsa wood for wind turbines, land for large solar arrays, and new infrastructure for hydrogen megaprojects. This decarbonization of the rich, which is market-based and export-oriented, depends on a new phase of environmental dispossession of the Global South, which affects the lives of millions of women, men, and children, as well as non-human living beings.

In this way, the Global South has once again become a zone of sacrifice, a basket of purportedly inexhaustible resources for the countries of the North.

In geopolitical terms, the issue of lithium extraction in Latin America is a privileged window, a leading case, to analyse this type of transition, which is corporate, neocolonial and unsustainable. It has been claimed innumerable times that lithium is the master key for the energy transition, because as a final product, Ion-Lithium batteries are used for the development of electric cars, so are necessary to get out of fossil fuel-based mobility. 58% of the global lithium resources and 53% of the reserves are concentrated in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile in high Andean salt flats. This concentration has unleashed enormous pressure from international capitals and from central countries. It is a battle for control of resources, as well as for control of knowledge in the global value chain.

In this context, the trend is towards a type of corporate energy transition. Thus, there are actors who, confronted with the climate situation, are seeing in the energy transition potential for wealth accumulation and geopolitical hegemony positioning. Beyond the business sphere, the corporate-energy transition may have diverse supporters such as multinational companies, states (in their multiple scales), institutions and organisations. Many defend this concept as the fastest way to respond to the urgency of the crisis, based on the idea of technological efficiency, the trivialized idea of ‘sustainable development’ and the ‘green economy’. That is, on continuing the path of growth without limits, of exchanging fossil resources for renewable and high-tech resources, without modifying the capitalist consumption logic. Moreover, it does not question the distribution or access to energy for populations, or citizen participation in decision-making processes.
An inherent characteristic of the energy system is its concentration. Large companies, not only private, but in many cases public, hold the hegemonic power. At the end of the global value chain are all the auto giants (Toyota, BMW, VW, Audi, Nissan, General Motors), electrical firms like Vestas and Tesla. 50% of the batteries for the automotive industry are concentrated in companies in China and Japan. Added to this, the control of the extraction is also dominated by a few companies: the American Albemarle, the Chilean SQM, the North American Livent Corp, Orocobre of Australia, and Ganfeng of China.

Lithium extraction is different from metal mega-mining since it does not involve removing tons of earth and dynamiting mountains. However, the main problem with lithium is that it is fundamentally water mining. Its extraction in brine requires the consumption of unsustainable amounts of water in an arid region. This puts at risk the fragile ecosystem of the desert, its wildlife and the livelihoods of the people who live there, especially Indigenous communities. On the other hand, a commodity (lithium carbonate), without added value, is exported. From Argentina or Chile, there is no control of the global lithium chain from salt flats to batteries.

The fact is that in Argentina, as well as in the Atacama region of Chile, lithium extraction threatens to break the fragile water balance. It tends to dry up aquifers and water reserves in areas that are already characterised by aridity and hydric stress. It also competes for water with the agricultural and grazing activities of the local Indigenous communities that have inhabited the territory for millennia, while threatening biodiversity. The impact of lithium mining in the Atacama region of Chile is so great that it was one of the issues discussed by the International Tribunal on the Rights of Nature, held in Chile in December 2019.

In many cases, lithium extraction has advanced without social licence, that is, without the agreement of or consultation with the communities. In Salinas Grandes, Jujuy, Argentina, the thirty-three communities do not want lithium extraction to take place in their territories. On the balloon that artist Tomàs Saraceno raised in January 2020, shortly before the pandemic, was the slogan ‘Water and Life are Worth More than Lithium’. In January 2023, we travelled with Saraceno and several Argentine writers, environmental lawyers and social scientists to the heart of the puna, Alfarcito, where after two days of intense exchange and dialogue of knowledge, we attended a meeting of the Indigenous communities declaring the basin of the Salinas Grandes and the Guayatayoc Lagoon a subject of rights. They defend a holistic and ancestral perspective, the relational narrative link to ideas such as Good Living, Territory, Autonomy, Plurinationality, Water and Sustainabilty. The salt flats are considered by Indigenous people as ‘a living being, as a giver of life.’

The post-fossil transition cannot be used as an excuse for consolidating or continuing to maintain consumption models that are openly unsustainable. It is not enough to replace fossil-fuel based cars with electric cars. It is necessary to reduce consumption and move towards public and shared mobility models, so that they become sustainable. The fact that lithium batteries, as well as wind and solar projects, also require minerals (such as copper, zinc, among others), warns us of the need to carry out a radical reform of the transportation system and, in general, of the consumption model.  Even a World Bank report notes that the production of minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, could result in an increase of nearly 500% by 2050, to meet the growing demand for clean-energy technologies. It is estimated that more than 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be required for the implementation of wind, solar and geothermal energy, as well as energy storage, to achieve a temperature reduction below 2°C in the future.

It is not that we in the global South do not consider the decarbonisation process important, but that decarbonisation must point to a way out of commodification and not consolidate new forms of extractivism and areas of sacrifice in the global South. People in resistance have called these ‘false solutions’, supported by energy colonialism or ‘green extractivism’.

Our perspective

I consider it essential for the North to address a process of degrowth and to confront the ecological debt it owes to the peoples of the South. The global North must degrow its consumption, contract the market sphere, dematerialise production, among other measures. As anthropologist Jason Hickel said in Less is More, How Degrowth can Save the World, degrowth calls for rich nations to scale down throughput to sustainable levels, reducing aggregate energy use to enable a sufficiently rapid transition to renewables, and reducing aggregate resource use to reverse ecological breakdown. This demand is not just about ecology; rather, it is rooted in anti-colonial principles […] In the face of ecological breakdown, solidarity with the South requires degrowth in the North.

The complement of degrowth must be the payment of the ecological debt. No climate justice or socio-ecological transformation is possible without including reparations for these debts, because ecological debt and external debt are intrinsically linked. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the debt problem and the urgent need for real solutions and not just temporary and very short-term relief.  However, the recognition of the ecological and climate debt cannot be used to absolve the models of underdevelopment that are deployed in the territories of the global South, blocking any criticism of them, as well as the discussions that are proposed from below (socio-environmental organisations and activists) on the ecosocial transition. In fact, there is nothing more colonial than passively accepting the role assigned to Latin America as a global supplier of raw materials, as if this were a destiny and not a global geopolitical decision, even if it is done on behalf of the green transition.

The energy transition must be thought from an integral perspective that contemplates the different dimensions that comprise it: technical, social, economic, environmental, political, cultural; that inserts the geopolitical aspects of the debate: tensions, conflicts and relations of inequality in the progress of the transition between countries of the North and emerging countries, with respect to the countries of the South; and finally, that places the emphasis on the situation of contemporary Argentina, and more generally, on the Latin America region.

Our starting point is to think of energy as a right and a common good. In fact, almost all of it comes from the mother source, the sun, the webs of life, as Saraceno´s work shows. Energy has traditionally been considered a strategic natural resource and currently there is a predominant effective use that, quite contrary to its evident relational and collective character, treats its sources as commodities, thus tying it to market dynamics. Under these conditions, the treatment of the energy issue requires an integral, multidimensional and interdisciplinary approach, also crossed by geographical (global, regional, national, local) and temporal (short, medium and long term) variables.

It is also a matter of answering more elementary questions. For example, why is a change in the energy system necessary? What does it mean and what is the scope of the ‘energy transition’ in this context? What are the models and proposals under discussion and in dispute regarding what is understood as energy transition? Is it possible to dissociate the energy transition from a more comprehensive ecosocial transition? What does it mean to transform the current energy system? For whom should we produce energy and why? Who will pay the costs of the energy transition? How is the energy transition crossed by interests, positions and asymmetries of political and class actors? What are the limits of those energy sources that today are presented as clean and renewable? What does the energy transition have to do with participation from below and more specifically with democracy? What is happening in South America with the energy transition?

In short, we understand that the ecosocial transition must be associated with global climate justice. The COVID 19 pandemic, caused by a zoonotic virus, revealed the responsibilities of models of underdevelopment (deforestation, encroachment on wild ecosystems, large-scale animal husbandry, among others). It also revealed our vulnerability as humanity, revealing the need to reformulate our relationship with nature in order to protect the fabric of life. It is no coincidence that since 2020, proposals for an ecosocial transition have been promoted and, particularly from the North, the concern for achieving the energy transition to a post-fossil fuel system has been emphasized. However, as we see in the case of lithium, one of the greatest risks is that in a context of accelerating systemic collapse, and with regard to the roadmap of energy transition, is that we in the global South continue to be spoken for by the governments of the North, for and from the position of a corporate, neocolonial and unsustainable transition, which touts the virtues of green energy while neo-extractivism, inequalities and violations of the rights of our populations and territories are accentuated.
This essay was originally published by Ivorypress within ‘Tomás Saraceno in collaboration: Web(s) of Life’ (2023) in the framework of an exhibition at Serpentine Galleries, London.

[1] Ecosocial and Inter-cultural Pact of the South, Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Just Transition from the Peoples of the South, 2023,
[2] M. Argento, A. Slipak and F. Puente, El litio y la acumulación por desfosilización en Argentina, in M. Svampa and P. Bertinat, La transición energética en Argentina (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2022).
[3] World Bank, Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition, 2020,
[4] J. Hickel, Less is More, How Degrowth can Save the World (London: Verso, 2020).
[5] M. Svampa and E. Viale, El colapso ecológico ya llegó. Una guía para salir del (mal) desarrollo (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2020).


We, the communities, declare:

That the Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc Basin has the right to the integral respect of its existence and the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles and functions, structure and evolutionary processes. It also has the right to the preservation of its salt flats and high Andean wetlands, and respect for water cycles, their existence in the quantity and quality necessary to sustain life systems and to live free of contamination. We demand the recognition and respect of these rights by public authorities and corporations.

Similarly, exercising the rights of the Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc basin requires the recognition, recovery, respect, protection and dialogue of the diversity of feelings, values, knowledge, practices, abilities, transcendences, transformations, sciences, technologies and norms of all cultures that seek to live in harmony with Nature.

That we, the original inhabitants and communities of the territory of the Basin, and its commons, are its Guardians and protectors of its rights.

That, in the exercise of our constitutional rights, ILO Convention 169, the “Escazú” Agreement and concordant laws, we reaffirm territorial self-determination and the total and definitive rejection of all mega-mining, lithium and other mineral projects in the Salinas Grandes and Laguna Guayatayoc Basin as ancestral guardians of the cultural, territorial and natural heritage of the Kolla and Atacama indigenous peoples.

We reject, as unconstitutional, the law that calls for constitutional reform in the province of Jujuy and demand the incorporation of the rights of indigenous peoples in any constituent process.

This declaration was collectively drafted between the 14th and 15th of January, 2023, in the community of San Francisco de Alfarcito, Jujuy, Argentina, during the 2023 Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc Gathering, co-organized by the Aerocene Community and the Indigenous Communities of Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc, with the Action Collective for Ecosocial Justice (Colectivo de Acción por la Justicia Ecosocial), the Mirá Socio-environmental Collective, the Geopolitics and Commons Study Group (Grupo de estudio Geopolítica y Bienes Comunes), the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales), the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers (Asociación Argentina de Abogados/as Ambientalistas), lawyer Alicia Chalabe, writer Graciela Speranza and curator Inés Katzenstein. The text presented here is slightly edited for contextualization.

Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transition from the Peoples of the South

An appeal to leaders, institutions, and our brothers and sisters, from the Ecosocial and Intercultural Pact of the South:

More than two years after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic—and now alongside the catastrophic consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—a “new normal” has emerged. This new global status quo reflects a worsening of various crises: social, economic, political, ecological, bio-medical, and geopolitical.

Environmental collapse approaches. Everyday life has become ever more militarized. Access to good food, clean water, and affordable health care has become even more restricted. More governments have turned autocratic. The wealthy have become wealthier, the powerful more powerful, and unregulated technology has only accelerated these trends.
The engines of this unjust status quo—capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and various fundamentalisms—are making a bad situation worse. Therefore, we must urgently debate and implement new visions of ecosocial transition and transformation that are gender-just, regenerative, and popular, that are at once local and international.

In this Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transition from the Peoples of the South, we hold that the problems of the Global – geopolitical – South are different from those of the Global North and rising powers such as China. An imbalance of power between these two realms not only persists because of a colonial legacy but has deepened because of a neocolonial energy model. In the context of climate change, ever rising energy needs, and biodiversity loss, the capitalist centers have stepped up the pressure to extract natural wealth and rely on cheap labor from the countries on the periphery. Not only is the well-known extractive paradigm still in place but the North’s ecological debt to the South is rising.

What’s new about this current moment are the “clean energy transitions” of the North that have put even more pressure on the Global South to yield up cobalt and lithium for the production of high-tech batteries, balsa wood for wind turbines, land for large solar arrays, and new infrastructure for hydrogen megaprojects. This decarbonization of the rich, which is market-based and export-oriented, depends on a new phase of environmental despoliation of the Global South, which affects the lives of millions of women, men, and children, not to mention non-human life. Women, especially from agrarian societies, are amongst the most impacted. In this way, the Global South has once again become a zone of sacrifice, a basket of purportedly inexhaustible resources for the countries of the North.

A priority for the Global North has been to secure global supply chains, especially of critical raw materials, and prevent certain countries, like China, from monopolizing access. The G7 trade ministers, for instance, recently championed a responsible, sustainable, and transparent supply chain for critical minerals via international cooperation‚ policy, and finance, including the facilitation of trade in environmental goods and services through the WTO. The Global North has pushed for more trade and investment agreements with the Global South to satisfy its need for resources, particularly those integral to “clean energy transitions.” These agreements, designed to reduce barriers to trade and investment, protect and enhance corporate power and rights by subjecting states to potential legal suits according to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms. The Global North is using these agreements to control the “clean energy transition” and create a new colonialism.

Governments of the South, meanwhile, have fallen into a debt trap, borrowing money to build up industries and large-scale agriculture to supply the North. To repay these debts, governments have felt compelled to extract more resources from the ground, creating a vicious circle of inequality. Today, the imperative to move beyond fossil fuels without any significant reduction in consumption in the North has only increased the pressure to exploit these natural resources. Moreover, as it moves ahead with its own energy transitions, the North has paid only lip service to its responsibility to address its historical and rising ecological debt to the South.

Minor changes in the energy matrix are not enough. The entire energy system must be transformed, from production and distribution to consumption and waste. Substituting electric vehicles for internal-combustion cars is insufficient, for the entire transportation model needs changing, with a reduction of energy consumption and the promotion of sustainable options.
In this way, relations must become more equitable not only between the center and periphery countries but also within countries between the elite and the public. Corrupt elites in the Global South have also collaborated in this unjust system by profiting from extraction, repressing human rights and environmental defenders, and perpetuating economic inequality.

Rather than solely technological, the solutions to these interlocked crises are above all political.

As activists, intellectuals, and organizations from different countries of the South, we call on change agents from different parts of the world to commit to a radical, democratic, gender-just, regenerative, and popular ecosocial transition that transforms both the energy sector and the industrial and agricultural spheres that depend on large-scale energy inputs. According to the different movements for climate justice, “transition is inevitable, but justice is not.”

We still have time to start a just and democratic transition. We can transition away from the neoliberal economic system in a direction that sustains life, combines social justice with environmental justice, brings together egalitarian and democratic values with a resilient, holistic social policy, and restores an ecological balance necessary for a healthy planet. But for that we need more political imagination and more utopian visions of another society that is socially just and respects our planetary common house.

The energy transition should be part of a comprehensive vision that addresses radical inequality in the distribution of energy resources and advances energy democracy. It should de-emphasize large-scale institutions—corporate agriculture, huge energy companies—as well as market-based solutions. Instead, it must strengthen the resilience of civil society and social organizations.

Therefore, we make the following 8 demands:

    1. We warn that an energy transition led by corporate megaprojects, coming from the Global North and accepted by numerous governments in the South, entails the enlargement of the zones of sacrifice throughout the Global South, the persistence of the colonial legacy, patriarchy, and the debt trap. Energy is an elemental and inalienable human right, and energy democracy should be our goal.

We call on the peoples of the South to reject false solutions that come with new forms of energy colonialism, now in the name of a Green transition. We make an explicit call to continue political coordination among the peoples of the south while also pursuing strategic alliances with critical sectors in the North.

To mitigate the havoc of the climate crisis and advance a just and popular ecosocial transition, we demand the payment of the ecological debt. This means, in the face of the disproportionate Global North responsibility for the climate crisis and ecological collapse, the real implementation of a system of compensation to the global South. This system should include a considerable transfer of funds and appropriate technology, and should consider sovereign debt cancellation for the countries of the South. We support reparations for loss and damage experienced by Indigenous peoples, vulnerable groups and local communities due to mining, big dams, and dirty energy projects.

We reject the expansion of the hydrocarbon border in our countries—through fracking and offshore projects—and repudiate the hypocritical discourse of the European Union, which recently declared natural gas and nuclear energy to be “clean energies.” As already proposed in the Yasuni Initiative in Ecuador in 2007 and today supported by many social sectors and organizations, we endorse leaving fossil fuels underground and generating the social and labor conditions necessary to abandon extractivism and move toward a post-fossil-fuel future.

We similarly reject “green colonialism” in the form of land grabs for solar and wind farms, the indiscriminate mining of critical minerals, and the promotion of technological “fixes” such as blue or grey hydrogen. Enclosure, exclusion, violence, encroachment, and entrenchment have characterized past and current North-South energy relations and are not acceptable in an era of ecosocial transitions.

We demand the genuine protection of environment and human rights defenders, particularly indigenous peoples and women at the forefront of resisting extractivism.

The elimination of energy poverty in the countries of the South should be among our fundamental objectives—as well as the energy poverty of parts of the Global North—through alternative, decentralized, equitably distributed projects of renewable energy that are owned and operated by communities themselves.

We denounce international trade agreements that penalize countries that want to curb fossil fuel extraction. We must stop the use of trade and investment agreements controlled by multinational corporations that ultimately promote more extraction and reinforce a new colonialism.

Our ecosocial alternative is based on countless struggles, strategies, proposals, and community-based initiatives. Our Manifesto connects with the lived experience and critical perspectives of Indigenous peoples and other local communities, women, and youth throughout the Global South. It is inspired by the work done on the rights of nature, buen vivir, vivir sabroso, sumac kawsay, ubuntu, swaraj, the commons, the care economy, agroecology, food sovereignty, post-extractivism, the pluriverse, autonomy, and energy sovereignty. Above all, we call for a radical, democratic, popular, gender-just, regenerative, and comprehensive ecosocial transition.

Following the steps of the Ecosocial and Intercultural Pact of the South, this Manifesto proposes a dynamic platform that invites you to join our shared struggle for transformation by helping to create collective visions and collective solutions.

We invite you to endorse this manifesto with your signature:

Towards the Rights of Nature

The transition from “Nature as an object” to “Nature as a subject” has begun. Establishing Nature as a subject with rights postulates a new way for human beings to relate to Nature and its elements. Therefore, it requires a shift from an anthropocentric paradigm to a socio-biocentric paradigm. The guidelines of this new civilizing paradigm emphasize the abandonment of the characterisation of nature merely as a basket of resources.

On the contrary, it is not considered as an object of domination and purely as an economic resource. However, the universal recognition of the “Rights of Nature” does not presuppose an untouched nature, but rather an integral respect for its existence and the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes, the defense of life systems.

Granting Rights to Nature does not only mean abandoning an idea of conquest, colonization and exploitation of Mother Earth, but also proposes a profound civilisational change that questions all the dominant anthropocentric logics and becomes a vanguard response to the current civilisational crisis. It requires us to think about other life options that involve, to begin with, slowing down the current pattern of consumption, while democratically building more humane and sustainable societies.

The aim is to build a society based on harmonious relationships between human beings and nature, between human beings and living beings, between human beings and themselves, and between human beings and other human beings. This notion, which has been alive in the perceptions of indigenous peoples for a long time, does not imply a millenarian vision of a harmonious paradise, nor a naïve idealization that poses a regression to pre-modernity.

It should not seem unusual for humans to seek to secure our existence in the universe through legislation and jurisprudence that begins by favoring our Mother Earth or Pachamama, the one who provides our sustenance.

The rights of nature present a challenge to legal science. It is about expanding and completing the paradigm of human rights (anthropocentric view) by including the “rights of nature” (biocentric view). Human Rights are complemented by the Rights of Nature, and vice versa.

Recognising the Rights of Nature implies a transformation of legal thinking; it requires an epistemological shift that revisits and updates the ancestral knowledges and ancestral sciences of the indigenous, rural, afro-latin american and intercultural nations and peoples, complementing them with ecological, technological and multidisiciplinary knowledge of the theories of complexity and theories that are critical of predatory development and modernity. It reorients human beings, communities, societies, peoples and governments to defend, protect, mitigate and restore Mother Earth in a complementary manner, defending life and the beings sheltered and contained in the great home of Mother Earth, re-encountering and reintegrating with her in a complementary manner and establishing reciprocity with nature and the beings that compose her.

The legal branch of the Rights of Mother Earth states that laws and forms of governance are social constructs that evolve over time and change according to new realities. This legal line proposes the development of an Earth-centred and not only human-centred jurisprudence, and a new legal and institutional framework that includes the premises of scientific, ethical and indigenous currents of thought in order to accelerate the changes we need. The question now, is how can we rethink the legal and institutional order to enable the Earth’s wellbeing and the wellbeing of all its elements. How can our legal and policy frameworks reflect that nature has intrinsic values? How can we build a governance that helps avoid catastrophic imbalances on the planet?

Human beings are part of the innumerable collectivity of living beings, they are part of nature, and in this context they are not the centre of Mother Earth or of the cosmos; being part of nature, they must share with other beings, coexisting in a complementary and reciprocal way, contributing to harmony and coexistence. Recognising the Rights of Nature is the outcry of the beings themselves against pollution, degradation, environmental depredation, ecological crisis, social inequality, exploitation, and dispossession of Mother Earth.

Twenty centuries to declare all human beings to be “people”, following multiple racisms and genocides, helps us to understand the current resistance to declaring that, in addition to us, there are others who also have rights. The history of this issue in the West is a source of skepticism, even if many principles of ecology stem from it. Nevertheless, we can start from the Gaia hypothesis to arrive at the current debates in Latin America, heirs of Aymara, Quechua, Mayan, etc. beliefs, in which, regardless of the name and image that Mother Earth assumes, there is a profound sense of unity of human beings with her, without the pretended distance and superiority that has since been imposed.

There is nothing preventing us from taking that step.

What Mountains Hold

Energy dreams are too often realised at the expense of the lives of indigenous peoples, local communities, and their ecosystems. Under the pretext of progress, these groups are portrayed as backward or even non-existent, their bodies and territories equated to resources to be extracted, sacrificed to the logics of profit and ‘development’. Post-fossil fuel green futures are no exception. They still depend on extractivist industries that open wounds in mountains and communities, on their ground and the depths beneath them, breaking everything that exists down into pieces for its exploitation to keep the promise of infinite growth alive. All this ‘development’ is at the detriment of communities who carry the burden for us all.

Covas do Barroso is one of the areas affected by our compulsive desires for more energy and, in particular, more batteries. Located in a mountainous region in the north of Portugal, a site of biodiversity and unique centuries‑long cultural traditions, the community of Covas has been rendered a sacrificial area. Its lands contain lithium. Since 2016, the Portuguese and Spanish governments and the European Commission have instigated extraction projects in this region now advertised as one of the largest lithium reserves in Europe. These efforts have been further intensified and vindicated ideologically by the EU Green Deal in 2020 and the geopolitical instability and energy shortages of 2022.

In the name of a green economy and energy independence, the EU presents lithium extraction as a necessary step towards this transition and falsely promoted it as an employment generator. Multinationals operating in the region, such as Savannah Resources, are not only interested in what mountains hold. The possibility of lithium extraction and the prospecting and mining rights are, in themselves, a commodity, a future that companies buy and sell, making a profit out of the eventual mining and the consequent destruction of an ecosystem.

Despite operating under the “clean energy” label, lithium mines have a long‑term impact on the quality of air, water, and soil, as well as the lives of beings depending on them, far beyond the pit. The prospect of the environmental and social degradation of places like Covas do Barroso is presented as the lesser evil compared to the dependence on the fossil fuel industry. Since 2018, its inhabitants – supported by a wide range of societal actors and communities affected by lithium extraction in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Serbia, and Spain – have sustained direct and legal opposition against projects such as the Mina do Barroso, an open pit mega-mine that threatens the agricultural world heritage. As a result of protests across and beyond Portugal, the state reduced the number of prospective mining sites to 6. Covas de Barroso is among them, still threatened by Western and, particularly, European lithium-powered green futures.

Aida Gomes and Nelson Gomes, representatives from “Unidos em Defesa de Covas do Barroso,” an environmental conservation organization created in defense of the communities’ interests, are suffering the effects of these futures. If not in Covas do Barroso, where? some ask them, accepting destruction as the inevitable cost of progress. The real question, however, is whether we are ready to resist our compulsive desires and live appropriately on Earth. The so-called green transition is in vain if not made alongside a reconsideration of the ethics of a society founded on extractivism and consumerism. Even when faced with the climate catastrophe, we tend to render the need for more energy inevitable and rely on finding new fixes rather than embracing other forms of living.

In this context, imagining new energy cultures is paramount for embracing a different way of being in the world. As philosopher Michael Marder contends, we conceive energy as something that the Earth holds or that our bodies and batteries store, which could eventually be released and put to work. This problematic conception of energy assumes the destruction of bodies and ecosystems while searching for and extracting energy. We gamble on, and auction, the future while carrying out actions that foreclosure the possibility of a future.

Mountains’ riches

Covas do Barroso is part of a larger area endangered by lithium extraction. Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, located in the north-eastern corner of Portugal and the South of Galicia in Spain, has long been known for the riches that mountains hold. Here, ores are often forcefully taken from the entrails of the mountain. Sometimes they burst unexpectedly to the surface. The territory has the most significant quantity of thermal springs in the Iberian Peninsula, whose curative waters contain the same endogenous resources that mining corporations dig for.

Paradoxically, while the EU encourages mining on the territory, and consequently the depletion of the water table, it also promotes the region as a water-based health and wellbeing destination and positions water, and thermalism as strategic resources capable of dynamizing the regions’ economy. The proliferation of mining projects puts the quality and quantity of these local springs and their natural mineral waters at risk, making it necessary to decide on which future these communities and ecosystems deserve. “No a la Mina, Si a la Vida!” (Não às Minas, Sim à Vida) read the posters, graffiti, and banners populating every corner of Barroso, words also pronounced by the inhabitants as they walk the streets and pass in front of the Savannah Resources headquarters.

The abundance of ores and mineral-medicinal springs in this cross-border region have been known since Roman times. Yet, it was only in the mid-nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century that it became a health destination. Hot springs were formalized in fountains, and those into sophisticated spa architectures in Verin, Vidago, and Pedras Salgadas. Tourism, social life and health converged, turning the region into a reference for European thermalism. For example, the waters from Fonte Campilho were celebrated since 1882 for their curative properties. But in 1895, when the fountain was transformed into Palacete Templo das Aguas, it started to be commercially explored as Gasocarbonic Mineral Water. A mineral and spring water bottling industry, the Fonte Campilho factory, was soon built nearby. From drinking them directly from the rocks to then tasting and bathing in them through elaborated rituals, and finally consuming them through bottled and commercialized versions (such as Campilho, Pedras Salgadas and Cabreiroa), these waters have been carriers of well-being aspirations for centuries.

The resorts erected in Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro around lithium-rich springs aligns with that of other regions in Europe at the time, which offered bathing and drinking cures to an exhausted society during the era of rapid industrialization. With the advancement of medical sciences in the twentieth century, however, the curative water industries declined, and many of these infrastructures were abandoned. The twenty-first century’s obsession with well-being and self-optimization has nevertheless revived these enclave’s thermal experiences. Today, exhaustion and depression—the maladies of neoliberalism—are treated in a system of springs, rivers and thermal baths that share grounds with prospective lithium extraction sites across Europe. These mining, bathing, and drinking territories shed light on lithium’s role as a critical component of energy and wellbeing projects. The search and intake of lithium for batteries and mineralized waters follows the capitalist compulsion to put bodies and mountains to operate within the mantra of efficiency and productivity.

The Termas de Bande, on the banks of the Limia River in Ourense (Spain), is one of the exceptions where the emergence of curative mineralized waters has yet to be exploited commercially. Long before nineteenth-century developments, the Romans had praised these waters as therapeutic and recreational. Between 69–79 AD, they erected The Aquis Querquennis camp, which includes a system of open-air thermal baths operating between 36–48 degrees Celsius. In 1948, the site fell to the power-hungry infrastructure developments that converge the electrical and political power in Francoist Spain. The Aquis Querquennis was drowned to build the As Conchas dam, partially constructed with the revenues of wolframite mining and its exports to Nazi Germany.

As Conchas radically altered life in the area and came to symbolize the fight between energy projects and socio-cultural and environmental conservation. Almost forty years after its inauguration, in 1985, the Bande City Council and the Hydrographic Confederation started recovering vestiges of both the Roman and a subsequent nineteenth-century bathing infrastructure. Today, people continue to undress and bathe together at As Conchas, floating back and forth between the hot lithium-rich waters coming from the mountain and the cold waters from the reservoir that partially submerge the baths during the summer months.

These embodied experiences allow one to comprehend the intricate energy processes that connect us to others and the planet. As extractivism breaks grounds and communities apart, exhausting lands and bodies to the point of mental and environmental collapse, it becomes increasingly important to practice collective care. Submerged in the hot springs in what Cheila Rodrigues came to define as a “Bathassembly,” bodies honour what has become a rallying cry in the region: “El agua no se vende se cuida y se defiende” (Water is not for sale, it is cared for and defended).

Defending the Territory: A conversation with Pedro Uc Be

Pedro Uc Be is a Maya poet, a translator, an organizer, a mobilizer, living in the community of Buctzotz, some 90 km northeast of Mérida, the main city of the region of Yucatán. This region is located on the peninsula that separates the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and is one of the thirty-two states of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. The biodiversity of Yucatán is extremely varied and rich, and has a unique ecosystem encompassing very different types of forests (mangroves, tropical, subtropical, seasonal evergreen, savannahs, and more). The conservation of this ecosystem is also due to the protection of Maya People on the territory and their very complex and holistic land management practices and knowledges around care for the Earth, something that enabled them to co-inhabit the natural world for thousands of years, without destroying it and while going through extreme changes and natural disasters.

I met Pedro in early 2021, when he introduced me to the work of The Assembly for the Defence of the Mayan Territory and it is their work this conversation focuses on. Particularly, their starting points and motivations, their strategies and forms of organizing. The hope is that such a story and the experiences it speaks of may be inspirational for similar but different situations, for collective and local-community driven forms of fighting extraction, land expropriation or ecological devastation.

It is especially a way of reading, or of listening, to the words of people who have been living sustainably for centuries and thanks to whom the majority of the remaining world’s biodiversity is protected. Communities who keep on finding ways to defend their territories and all lives on them despite colonization, marginalization, expropriation, the effects of industrial agriculture or of mega projects for mass tourism.

A short conversation that may get the reader a tiny bit closer to understanding how to eventually come together for what is a situation we are fundamentally codependent in and co-responsible for.

AA: Can you briefly describe the Assembly for the Defence of the Mayan Territory?
What does it do and where does the need for its work come from?

PU: On January 13th, 2018, those of us who are Mayan peasants, local property owners, collectives, children, women and men, affected in our territory by development megaprojects that occupy large tracts of land for the monoculture of soy, for the construction of pig farms and wind and photovoltaic parks, large hotels, restaurants and their subdivisions, and finally the ill-named Mayan train, gathered together in the city of Mérida. After listening to each other and sharing our words among the people from twenty-five Mayan communities of the Yucatan Peninsula, we agreed to organise ourselves into an assembly in defence of the Mayan territory under the name of Múuch’ Xíinbal (we walk together).
A Follow-up Commission (FC) was appointed to implement the agreements made. The work of this commission revolves around at least five strategies: media or outreach, the legal strategy, alliances with other organisations or collectives, political and organisational community training. The Assembly meets at least once a year, but the Follow-up Commission is in constant contact with the participating communities with which it works. As communities directly affected by the interests of economic and political power, we saw the need to vindicate with all our efforts the values of our Mayan identity with the message “The land is neither for sale nor for rent”.

As of today, after our first years of going on this journey together, we have discovered that our path of resistance and organization is the right one. We have been building this together, it is a task or “fajina” as we say in these areas; some of us from the CS are in charge of collecting, filtering, editing, synthesizing and translating the information in the national and local media into the Mayan language, that is already cleansed of the power of propaganda, in order to bring it to the communities in need. So, we generate the reflection of the communities that receive it, and begin to make agreements. We produce texts, infographics, videos, audios and even a podcast every Monday in Mayan and Spanish that we call “No-Radio Múuch’ Xíinbal”, as material for informative work, reflection and training in the communities. We implement a community political training program with young people from communities in a fight to conserve their lands and territories, once a month we meet to develop themes around identity, rights, milpa, rites, etc. to vindicate and strengthen our link to our territory. We seek support and legal accompaniment for the communities that wish to bring their land defense cases before the corresponding justice instances such as the Unitary Agrarian Court, the Federal Judiciary or the Prosecutor’s Office if necessary. For dissemination we implement a strategy in social media through the publication of information that we produce from the communities as their defense processes, their demands, their pronouncements, their press conferences, their infographics etc. Finally, we take Mayan literature to the communities, such as poetry and stories or narratives to strengthen the language, culture and identity.

AA: Thank you so much Pedro, your work is amazing. That’s why I want to focus on delving deeper into the practices to realise so many layers and strands of work. In fact, I’m sure that your strategies are incredibly inspiring for many. First of all, how did you manage to gather so many people in 2018? I mean this literally, how did you bring people together from so many distant communities? A Facebook call? Someone wrote a poster? WhatsApp messages that went viral?

At the beginning of 1986 I worked as coordinator for a non-formal theological training project that included study centres throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, as well as in the state of Chiapas. This role allowed me to visit for the first time most of the Mayan communities to conduct workshops from the perspective of Latin American theology. It also allowed me to meet many people and get to know many Mayan peasants who work their land with joy, with Mayan identity and great strength. In the next Peninsular tour that I went on, on which I was also accompanied by comrade Russell Pebá Ocampo, I held workshops in many communities and ejidos, with the intention to discuss the constitutional reform of article 27 within these spaces, which from our point of view was the legal framework for the beginning of the dispossession of the Mayan peasants and the whole country’s land. We also used Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recently ratified by the Mexican government. It was in this context that we participated in the 500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance Campaign to denounce the celebration that was being prepared by the invading and colonialist countries in 1992. Two years later, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) made its public appearance to vindicate the rights of the indigenous peoples of the country and we joined their demands as Mayan people. Since that experience, we have never stopped visiting the communities to listen to them, talk with them, read with them, celebrate with them and cry with them. Some civil society organizations occasionally invited us to facilitate workshops on human rights and particularly on indigenous rights, and we visited the communities again. All of this to say that our contact with the Mayan territory has been consistent since the end of the 1980s. We founded a movement in the Yucatán Peninsula that we call Indian theology, which originated in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, and for over 20 years, this space has served to strengthen the identity of our communities in the southeast of the country. But the experience gained visibility with the arrival of the internet and social media networks, among so many conversations with communities. There was one conversation in particular in which we told how we were supporting some communities in Quinta Roo to defend their lands from the monoculture of transgenic soy promoted by Monsanto. Then, the host did a live broadcast on one of the social networks, and that’s how we received many requests from communities who wanted information about the defence of land and territory because they were being dispossessed by megaprojects such as renewable energy parks, pig farms and real estate among others. It was then when we launched an invitation to meet in the city of Mérida, because many communities had already known us for many years, they responded to our call, and that’s when they gave birth to the child that today we know as the Assembly of Defenders of the Maya Territory Múuch’ Xíinbal.

AA: From this point on, how do you make collective decisions? Or are decisions made collectively? Or do they always have to be totally collective? How many people or communities are there that make decisions? You talked about the Follow-up Commission, how was it formed and how many people are involved?

The FC was appointed by the founding Assembly, it meets once a week via zoom to share its activities, to discuss issues and to agree on new activities. It is formed by at least ten people from different communities of the Peninsula. In case anything urgent comes up for a community or a difficult decision must be made, we speak over the phone and through WhatsApp groups, where discussions are held and agreements are reached.

AA: How do they facilitate collective participation between different people? Are there methodologies to facilitate dialogue and exchange?

One of the characteristics of Mayan culture is its communitarian nature, it is an “us”culture, not an individualistic one – although colonisation has permeated many spaces with its individualism. However, the Múuch’ Xíinbal Assembly claims communitarianism, which is composed not only of people but also of animals, birds, water, land, wind, etc. That is why it is of utmost importance for us as a movement that it be communitarian: where elders have to attend because of their experience and knowledge to give advice, young people to give strength and dreams, children to learn to walk our paths – everyone in a communal nature without discrimination for disability or gender. Everyone is simply assumed as equal because they are all part of the community, just as the wind or the birds. The strategy, which I’m not sure if it can be a methodology, is to take the information we gather about the community’s interests and share it so that they can discuss it with each other or with us; we also read Mayan poetry or stories – which the West calls tales – but which for us are our stories, those of our ancestors; sometimes we read the laws established by the State and compare the criteria of justice of the West with what we as Mayan people understand and assume as justice.

AA: Time and possibilities: Is it all based on voluntary work in the Follow-up Commission? Do some organisations support you? Do members make small donations? Maybe not even money, but in different ways?

We are all volunteers. We are not accompanying the communities – we are the communities directly affected by the projects that are dispossessing our territory. Some organisations have supported us with didactic material, or computer equipment that is fundamental in the production and promotion of our work. What is fundamental though, is time, commitment, skill, knowledge and also the different means that each member of the FC has to use in order to work with our communities, such as a bicycle, a motorbike, a car, a mobile phone, internet connection etc. each person contributes that from their own means, as well as space to sleep or eat.

AA: What are the most complex problems of collective and communal work? Is there any advice?

The government’s counterinsurgency strategy and the development and land grabbing companies are the most difficult problems. The government launches assistance programmes in the communities in order to break communitarianism: buys wills, corrupts community leaders with money, disintegrates families, uses the school to disorient, uses the churches – mainly the modern denominations that speak of the theology of prosperity or the gospel of neo-Pentecostalism -, bombards with propaganda, applies programmes of co-optation and destruction of identity, sowing individualism, and as if that were not enough, the political parties end up breaking any attempt at communitarianism.

AA: If you had to name one or more supporters that you could really benefit from, outside your own group, what or who would they be?

It would be very helpful for us if they would know us, if they would understand how we organize ourselves to lead our resistance, if they listen to us, and then, if we could talk about what we can share with all those who share our corn heart. We believe in exchange, in sharing our words, our corn, our vision, our dreams; we want to give, we want there to be a big table in a big house where everyone is present just as if it were an altar, where all the colours of maize are represented like a well-made cornfield. We believe that the first thing is to create a community so that our “jícaras” taste like pozole with honey from our native bee sisters.

The Puna is not a Triangle

Under the guise of the ‘green’ transition and implementing pathways to decarbonisation, a new frontier of capitalist expansion has emerged, in the form of a planetary race for minerals such as cobalt, copper, rare earths and in particular, lithium. Most of the world’s exploitable reserves of lithium are located in an area commercially known as the ‘lithium triangle’, a geometric figure delineated by the salares (salt flats) of Uyuni in Bolivia, Atacama in Chile and Hombre Muerto in Argentina. Salares are dried lake beds with underground reservoirs containing high concentrations of dissolved salts, such as lithium, potassium and sodium.

In 2017, I created the Lithium Triangle research studio, at the Royal College of Art, London, with the goal of examining the socio-environmental impacts of lithium extraction. This was a collaboration of environmental architecture students and teachers from the RCA, with lawyers, archaeologists, indigenous leaders and others working on the Atacama Desert in Chile. At the time there was very little being published (both academically and in newspapers) on the negative impacts of lithium extraction, and so it seemed crucial to foreground the realities of the ‘green transition’.

While the online platform showcases most of the collective and individual works we’ve developed during these years, in what follows I will speak to the aspects I found more significant. Our work focused mostly on the Salar de Atacama. Its hyper-arid climatic conditions make it perfect for lithium-rich brine extraction. This entails pumping the salt rich brines from beneath the salar’s crust, into a series of large, shallow ponds. Initially containing 200 to +1,000 parts per million (ppm), the lithium brine solution is concentrated by solar evaporation to achieve a ratio of up to 6,000 ppm lithium after 12 – 16 months. This means that on average, for each ton of lithium, 500,000 gallons of water are required. Lithium and copper mining corporations hold most rights to extract water from the aquifer, facilitating rates of water pumping that overtake its recharge capacity. Water is crucial to all mining operations, not only for material processing, for dust setting, and for drinking. In other words, obscene rates of water extraction are taking place in the driest desert in the world. And across the region, lithium extraction is expanding into dozens of other salares – including Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, containing the largest resources of lithium in the world, and whose government recently signed (January 2023) a deal for lithium extraction with a consortium led by CATL, the world’s largest battery manufacturer. Following from silver, gold, nitrate and copper, lithium continues the long history of extraction in the Atacama.

Governments and mining companies have historically described the desert as empty – despoblado -, occupied only by small groups of ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘primitive’ peoples. That such depictions and their explicit racism are aimed at easing the processes of land appropriation for the extraction of resources is abundantly clear. The desert has always been the most exaggerated figure of the colonial-extractive gaze, a world described as inhuman, the presupposed impossibility of inhabitation justifying its role as a sacrificial zone. In my mind it is obvious how in its pure geometric construction, the idea of a ‘lithium triangle’ captures the essence of colonial plunder: the projection of the extractive gaze over territories and communities, a pure geometry that sees as much as it ‘unsees’, that in the same gesture of exhuming precious riches, bringing them from below, erases all those others considers un-precious, be human or other, made inanimate, inhuman, invisible, irrelevant.

While the studio’s broader investigation has looked at lithium across local and global scales, both contemporary and historical, design efforts focused on strategies to take back the land from the control of mining corporations. Our collaborations with advocacy teams and indigenous organisations explored architectures of environmental sensing and monitoring to be used by locals against mining companies. Drawing on the expanding field of counter-mapping as well as on the emerging forensic approach to architectural activism, in its first stage, the project made use of remote-sensing, multispectral analysis and GIS to produce reports on environmental change to be used in legal disputes. We equally proposed tools to allow ground observations to be interpreted in relation to invisible data such as concession boundaries, aquifer location, soil depth, real-time measurements of water and wind, and vegetation health in time.

Many of our students suggested collaborative devices to bring data together, including online platforms, apps, and AR systems. We explored how these might enter into composition with non-academic modes of knowledge production, including oral histories, environmental knowledge from farmers, and Atacameño knowledge traditions of reciprocity, care and respect for the ancestors. The other key component of the work was to complement struggles for land with proposals for environmental care and maintenance. In collaboration with the ayllus of Tulor and Beter, San Pedro de Atacama, we redeployed conceptual and practical aspects of Atacameño environmental thinking to address contemporary challenges around land management, desertification, water scarcity and reproductive justice. Many proposals focused on the possibilities of research-based tourism, environmental pedagogies and new types of botanical economies, for the constitution of alternatives to the lack of local jobs outside of extractive industries.

Overall, we were able to confirm previous findings on the impacts of extraction. Through multi-year remote-sensing analysis we noted that the extraction of water for lithium and copper mining has impacted the lagoons and water table in the Salar de Atacama, how the depth of the water table has been steadily decreasing and how vegetation cover has decreased across the edges of the Salar. We encountered cases where animal and microbial ecosystems have been affected by the reduction in water levels, by shifts in the flow of water and by changes in the water’s chemical composition; we observed how dust and particulate materials released by mining activities generate a white haze that is permanently over the Salar. We confirmed how water is extracted not just in the Salar, but also upstream, near the small oases that surround it – precarious settlements that are very much dependent on the little water that trickles down from the top of the mountains. We confirmed that comparatively, Atacameño communities circumscribing the Salar de Atacama hold an amount of water rights barely sufficient for their survival.

On a personal note, the most important aspect I’ve noticed was how mental ecologies have deteriorated across the Salar’s communities. Little academic attention has been dedicated to the entanglement of social, material and mental ecologies, be it in the Atacama or at large. And even less on the mental and psychological impacts of extractivism. And yet it is undeniable. Extractivist mental pollution is manifest in prevailing suspicion and intra-community conflicts centred on differing relations to mining companies. There are multiple reasons for this: sometimes it’s a matter of differing positions on the buying of land by mining companies; sometimes it’s the result of the direct impacts of extraction over agricultural modes of existence; other times it is due to the heavy burden of contesting extractivism; and frequently it is a problem of deciding on compensations, seen by some as a lesser evil and the opportunity to benefit at least in some aspect from a dire situation, and by others, as a betrayal to the struggle for the protection of ancestral territories. All these aspects are magnified by both state and mining companies’ political and financial pressure over local leaders and representatives. In the Atacama as in every other area of resource extraction, the arrival of mining signals a drastic reduction in the range of possible futures, a trauma that is both to the environment as it is to its peoples.

This project came to an end in 2022. And yet, it highlighted the importance of resisting the multiplication of ‘lithium triangles’ across the world. The Atacama is one among many other territories across the world that stand in the frontlines of a mode of development from which those affected stand to gain very little. For the past couple of years, I have engaged in similar struggles in the north of Portugal, where I am from, and where several lithium mining projects are threatening unique ancestral environments. While too much focus on lithium might miss the forest for the trees (the real problem is the capitalist dependency on extractivism, and lithium is only one among many other metals needed for the current ‘transition’) I note how the hypocrisy with which it is marketed as ‘green & clean’ has led many people to join the struggle. Many across the world are increasingly ‘speaking truth to power’ regarding the cynicism of a ‘green transition’ that is led by extractive businesses instead of real environmental or climate concerns. The recently signed Jadar Declaration by Serbian, Chilean, Argentinian, Portuguese and US based environmentalist groups speaks to the importance of international alliances. But there is much more that needs to be done.

As a researcher my objectivity does not rely on some sort of neutral detachment, but on taking a clear stand. We urgently need the many worlds of the world making common cause if we are to resist the digging machines of capitalism. Extractivism is constantly inventing ‘lithium triangles’ and similar pseudo-geographies to justify the creation of sacrifice zones. But these are real environments, inhabited by many different beings and forms of life, be it microbial, vegetable or human, ancestral, earthly or celestial. The desert is not a triangle; Uyuni is not a triangle, and surely the Puna de Atacama is not a triangle.

Challenging the future – Resistance to predatory colonial lithium extractivism

The blind glare of the narratives surrounding lithium is expanding at enormous speed, obscuring the social and environmental impacts it represents for our Latin America.

Without a doubt, the world must abandon the fossil pattern of predatory consumption of nature and life. So must the hyper-materialised and disposable patterns of consumption of goods, the economic concentration of capital and the imperial lifestyles favoured by an unequal energy system. What is really at stake, however, is what this new world will look like, and so far we are not winning this battle of meaning. Based on the decarbonisation of national economies and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through carbon markets, global agendas for the energy transition are developing a new global eco-techno-corporate regime. It is a new green, neo-colonial and extractivist pact that, among its goals, has the replacement of infrastructure for “renewable” energy and an electromobility industry for mass consumption. In fact, the increase in sales of hybrid and/or electric vehicles would rise from just over 3 million today to 26 million by 2030 and 54 million by 2040. Simultaneously, the electronics industry of mobile phones, notebooks and tablets (which are in fact disposable), has grown to exorbitant levels.

We are witnessing a territorial war, the growing expansion of the lithium extractive frontier and another set of “critical elements for the transition” (World Bank Report, 2020). The economic concentration around the appropriation of lithium, as well as the inter-imperial struggle for the control of knowledge and patents, are part of a geopolitical dispute (GyBC, 2019) that nowadays even leads to the militarisation of areas considered “frontiers” for capital. Global powers and corporations all set their sights on the historic “backyard” of their interests, as Laura Richardson, head of the US Southern Command, recently, unashamedly, stated (Página 12, 2023). Green capitalism is today’s pattern of accumulation. To give just a couple of examples, the company Tesla increased its market capitalisation by 700% in 2020. China controls 50 percent of the world’s production of electromobility, it is the main producer and market for solar panels, windmills, hydropower, nuclear energy. All the most important investment funds in the world are dividing the territories and salt flats of Argentina and Chile, where lithium is found, like a chessboard, as are the most important car manufacturers in the world (Toyota, BMW, VW, Nissan, General Motors, Audi, BAIC, and the giants Tesla and B&D). Electronic firms such as Samsung, Panasonic, Huawei and Apple, and stationary storage companies such as Vestas, LG Chem and General Electric. This is a dynamic that we have called “accumulation by defossilisation and dispossession” (Argento Slipak and Puente, 2022), a race for control of resources, patents and knowledge, in conditions of socio-ecological and civilisational crisis.

Argentina, Chile and Bolivia possess 53% of the global reserves and about 58% of the resources (USGD, 2021) of lithium in their high Andean salt flats. This has turned the historic socio-cultural region of Atacama (Argentina, Chile and Bolivia) into the misnamed “Lithium Triangle”, a territory reinvented for capital. The projected image is of a new desert, built as a quarry of “resources” waiting to be “discovered”. Just as it was more than five centuries ago. Colonialism and renewed dependency that operates by deepening social and environmental inequalities and injustices and ecological-distributive conflicts, transferring socio-environmental costs, violating rights and dispossessing populations.

At opposite ends of the spectrum and in completely different socio-state frameworks, Chile and Bolivia share one thing in common, and that is that the state is in charge of lithium and considers it a strategic resource. Although considering it strategic in itself is not enough. Chile is the world’s second largest exporter after Australia, with more than four decades of monopolistic over-exploitation of this resource in the Salar de Atacama by the firms SQM and Albemarle. In this country, lithium was declared strategic in the 1970s, leaving the negotiation of contracts in the hands of the state through central institutions such as CORFO, in the framework of the expansion of neoliberal regulations. While in 2015 a National Lithium Commission made proposals aimed at increasing the capture of income and reparations for the affected populations, the extension of the duration of the contracts and the advance of the lithium mining frontier towards new salt flats perpetuate the features of a primarily export-oriented profile, with the framework of neoliberal policies and a historically subsidiary state. With an extraordinary increase in exports over the last year, the Boric government has just presented its National Strategy for lithium, including planning, value addition, and with majority State participation. However, the truth is that this is proposed with a public-private shareholder composition, where active projects are not touched until their completion in 2030 and 2043 (SQM and Albemarle respectively), expanding mining activity with state control to other salt flats. So, its real disruptive capacity with what has been done so far will depend on the future regulation of these announcements.

Bolivia is undoubtedly the country that tried to break away from the colonial and dependent horizon around lithium. In 2009, a sovereign policy was promoted that declared the state to be the owner of the evaporite resources in the Uyuni salt flat (the largest in the region). Emanating from organisations and movements in the Potosi region and presented to the MAS at the beginning of its term, the three-stage plan was supposed to lead to the production of Bolivian lithium batteries. However, persistent difficulties with the extraction technique in climatic conditions different from those of neighbouring countries and varying degrees of concentration of lithium in brine delayed the deadlines and the expected profits for the country for a long time, and generated many conflicts with the Potosi region, which is demanding an increase in royalties on the resources located in its territories. Political pressures were external: from the reluctance of corporations with the necessary know-how to accept sovereign turnkey terms for the development of plants, to pressure on Bolivia to relax the terms of negotiations with transnational capital. After the total interruption of the project under the de facto government of Yanine Añez, the policy of the current Arce government encourages the goal of exporting lithium even at the cost of opening up to transnational capital. To this end, it has signed an agreement with a Chinese conglomerate for the construction of two industrial complexes using the direct extraction technique (ELD).

Argentina is a poor example of deregulation, lack of perspective and political will, of “laissez-faire”. Argentina has the most favourable regulatory framework for transnational capital: the provincialisation of resources sanctioned in 1994, the Mining Code that governs the activity and the Mining Investment Law of 1993, consolidate the plundering of lithium in the country without any specific regulation whatsoever. The extractive companies and corporations must contribute only 3% of the value at the surface of the mine (the value declared by these same firms) to the provinces, and some have even lowered this margin. Capital logic puts pressure on the provinces to compete with each other to make themselves more “attractive” for the investments involved in extractive projects. All this leads to the relaxation of regulatory controls not only in economic terms, but also in terms of environmental impacts and permits for water use.

At present, Argentina has only two projects in the extraction stage: That of the North American Livent, which began its exploitation in the 1990s on the Salar de Hombre Muerto. And the one of Sales de Jujuy in the province of the same name (formerly Orocobre now Allkem of Australia), Toyota (Japan) and JEMSE (Jujuy), which began its extraction from the Olaroz salt flat in 2015 and is in the expansion stage towards almost doubling its capacity. The third is Minera Exar (Jujuy) with a project under construction in the Cauchari salt flat (with shareholders from China’s Ganfeng Lithium, Canada’s Lithium Americas and a small participation from JEMSE). However, there are about 50 projects in previous stages all over the country, and not only in the puna where all the salt flats are distributed, but in other provinces and regions, even in Patagonia. Today the country exports 40,000 tons of lithium carbonate, but the intention is to increase this figure to more than 300,000 tons, without any comprehensive and cumulative environmental study on what it would mean to increase this exorbitant figure.

Lithium mining is water mining, which, in the projected quantities, operates at the risk of water stress, the possible salinisation of fresh groundwater and/or the drying up of natural “ojos de agua”, the water sources for life in an ecosystem that is characterised by its fragility. Estimated water use for this mining ranges from 2 million liters of water per tonne of lithium carbonate to 5 million in cases that vary from project to project (due to the conditions of each salt flat, the degree of concentration of the mineral, and the technique used).

There is no future in lithium extractivism.

The populations and communities that inhabit the salt flats and have resisted historical racism since colonial times, as well as the formation of the nation state, are the main victims affected by lithium mining. Pre-existing productive economic activities, work linked to salt extraction, agriculture and animal husbandry are destroyed, violating the relational modes of care with nature, ancestral knowledge and know-how, identities and bodies that resist and re-exist on a daily basis. Nurturing is one of the axes that articulates resistance to the relentless expansion of capital accumulation. The defence of the water–life territory expresses an integral understanding of the basins and their brine, lagoons, meadows and wetlands. These wetlands are a reservoir of knowledge and wisdom on the survival of species and human life in extreme conditions, water regulators shaped by slow and natural cycles, carbon sinks. Thus, their defence is articulated in the socio-environmental struggles that demand the sanction of the #Wetlands Law Now! in Argentina.

The Kolla and Atacameño communities of Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc, who have been defending their territories for more than ten years, are well aware of this. “Water is worth more than lithium” they say, “We don’t eat batteries” they affirm, and in these messages of struggle they express the most radical universal criticism of a transition that is being conceived solely for the global powers. These are indigenous-rural communities who demand respect for territorial self-determination as a democratic logic of recognition as the ancestral inhabitants of these territories. They reject corporate interventions of organisational fragmentation or “weak participationism,” and fight for forms of self-determination. They maintain the defence of water and salt flats as a collective good, and understand the integral territory as hydro-social basins. In their struggles, they demand to be consulted in accordance with the Free, Prior and Informed Consultation that governs ILO Convention 169 and for the respect of all the constitutional indigenous rights systematically violated in the country. They demand the implementation of environmental impact studies on their territory, and demand compliance with environmental regulations. They propose logics based on an ecology of knowledges, which recognises, studies and endorses local learnings, experiences and expertise.

Their struggles are linked to a number of territories affected by lithium mining in Antofagasta de la Sierra in Catamarca, as well as in the Atacama and Copiapó regions in Chile, along with Likanantay and Colla communities, actors and socio-environmental assemblies in these territories, and movements that propose the defence of water basins and high Andean salt flats and wetlands. It is in the articulation of their proposals, and with those emerging from a range of other socio-environmental movements, rural, urban popular sectors, feminisms, ecofeminisms and young people’s activism, that we find the keys to the movements for social and environmental justice, or the alternatives towards a just and peaceful socio-ecological transition.

Agencia Internacional de Energía (2021). The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions.
Argento Melisa, Ariel Slipak y Florencia Puente (2022). El litio y la acumulación por desfosilización en Argentina. En Svampa Maristella y Pablo Bertinat (Coords.) La transición energética en la Argentina. Una hoja de ruta para entender los proyectos en pugna y las falsas soluciones. Siglo XXI. Buenos Aires, 2022.
GyBC (2019) Lithium triangle. An area of strategic dispute between global powers in the name of energy transition. Report of the Study Group on Geopolitics and the Commons. Institute for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, December 2019.
Fornillo, Bruno (Coord.) (2019). Litio en Sudamérica. Geopolítica, Energía y Territorios. Editorial El Colectivo, CLACSO. Buenos Aires.
OLCA, (2020), Institucionalidad del diálogo territorial. La privatización del diálogo. Observatorio Latinoamericano de Conflictos Ambientales. Santiago de Chile
Página 12, 11/04/23. La jefa del Comando Sur de Estados Unidos vuelve a la Argentina, con la mira en los recursos naturales y el vínculo con China. Disponible en
U.S. Geological Survey (2021) “Mineral Commodity Summaries 2021” U.S. Department of the Interior. United States of America.

The way it is – From Greta Thunberg to Aerocene in Salinas Grandes

The image on the cover of Greta Thunberg’s The Climate Book is enough to gauge the scale of the disaster. A series of vertical stripes show the progressive rise in global temperatures from 1654 to 2021, in resemblance to what could be a colorful Agnes Martin, the collective work of humanity’s feverish growth over the past decades. Each of the stripes indicates the average temperature of a year, from the deep blue of the first, coldest years to the deep red of the last. These are the warming stripes, created by Ed Hawkins at the University of Reading to show at a glance the unmistakable progress of global warming. They can be downloaded for free from, including those of Argentina, an abstract picture of the disaster that we too, aided by the countries of the North, were able to achieve.

The image is irrefutable but only the trigger for a tenacious crusade that now comes in the form of a book, a “Climate Bible”, polyphonic howl of a hurting world. “We tell it like it is,” Greta writes in one of the forewords that open each section, because she believes that not only are we unaware of the emergency, but we have not realised that we are unaware, a double capital fault that can only be repaired with clear and accurate information. The story she wants to tell – “the world’s biggest story” – could start with a couple of alarming figures. Average global temperatures have risen by 1.2°C since pre-industrial times, and although in the 2015 Paris Agreement almost every country in the world committed to limit warming to below 2°C (ideally below 1.5°C), the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that, with current policies, it will reach 3.2°C by 2100. In defiance of expert warnings (by the late 1970s there was already scientific consensus on increasing global warming), annual carbon emissions since 1991 have exceeded those of the rest of human history. The explosive growth of the 20th century tripled the world’s post-World War II population, quadrupled water consumption, increased marine fish catches sevenfold and fertiliser consumption tenfold. And while the whole world suffers the consequences, we are not all equally responsible. The greatest population growth was in the global South and most of the consumption was driven by the United States and Europe. The richest 10% of the world’s population causes 50% of our carbon emissions, more than double the emissions of the poorest half of the world.

We do not know the end of the story, but science does its best to remind us that there have been five mass extinctions in the last half a billion years, each in turn wiping out three quarters of the planet’s species, and we are blindly heading towards a sixth, the first caused by a biological agent, humans, the drivers of “infinite growth on a finite planet”.

From this account, it becomes clear that in the light of a multidimensional crisis, solutions will have to be collective but also individual. The critical tipping point for changing individual behaviour, sociology points out, is a committed minority of 25%; popular protest, activism and environmental movements, especially of young people and women, are trying to reach it in defiance of the silence of the mass media. “If I were asked which industry is most responsible for the destruction of life on the planet,” writes George Monbiot, writer and columnist for The Guardian, “I would say the media”. Through their complicity, their blindness, or their idleness, “they are the engine of persuasion that allows the system of destruction of the Earth to persist”. It is therefore necessary to demand clear environmental platforms from political parties, but also to refocus the world’s attention, gaining space in the mainstream media and redoubling efforts in alternative media, seeking new channels and encouraging new collective enterprises. El gato y la caja, for example, a platform for scientific research and dissemination created by a collective of young Argentines to generate public communication content on science in digital media – “more science, in more places, for more people” – and a collection of books, also available free of charge. In tune with Greta’s initiative, the latest, Clima, made openly and communally, convened a group of scientists, economists and activists, to tell “the biggest design challenge of all time” from a regional perspective.

However, individual will alone is not enough to implement fair and equitable climate mitigation and renaturalisation. Environmental biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer proposes “aligning economies with the laws of nature” and reminds us that “ecology” and “economy” share the same Greek root, oikos, meaning “house”. There will be no decarbonisation without a profound redistribution of wealth, Thomas Piketty asserts, and proposes creative solutions: “A modest global wealth tax on billionaires with a pollution surcharge could generate 1.7% of global revenues, which could finance most of the additional investments needed per year to cover climate mitigation efforts”. The proposal is sensible in an absurdly unequal world, but it will not be easy to stand up to the voracity and social deafness of the big corporations.

In the discourse of politics, economics and sometimes even science, a narrow pragmatism reigns, incapable of imagining what is to come, art does not conform to this impoverished version of realism; it gives material and visible entity to metaphors, reveals the limits of the imagination and makes realistic fantasies that at first sight are impracticable.

This is what happens in the practice of the Aerocene community who for years has been undertaking networked projects (“doing something”, Tomás Saraceno says, “that none of us could do alone”), in which the frontiers between science, technique, social theory and art are diluted like the horizon line of the Salar de Uyuni, where their first balloons flew, until they are recomposed in a fluid practice that is its own odyssey of space and perhaps its redefinition of art in the 21st century. In January 2020, a woman flew freely in a balloon for 16 minutes without the use of fossil fuels, helium or lithium, over the white sea of Salinas Grandes in the province of Jujuy. Fly with Aerocene Pacha broke 32 records with the most sustainable flight in human history, carrying the message proposed by the indigenous communities, who for more than a decade have been fighting for their rights in the face of resource extraction in the region: “Water and life are worth more than lithium”. The feat was documented in the film Pacha, which three years later, in mid-January, was screened in front of many of the protagonists in San Francisco de Alfarcito, a village of less than a hundred inhabitants, nestled in the clouds on the high plateau of Jujuy at an altitude of 3,500 metres above sea level.

There, the Aerocene community brought together environmental lawyers, human rights and nature rights activists, geopolitical and commons experts, writers and academic specialists in the region’s conflicts with a large group of representatives of the indigenous communities of Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc, to strengthen the defence of the territory, subjugated by extractivism with a high environmental impact, doubly strengthened by the global demand for lithium that promises to implement electromobility. The way it is: with very little return for the country, a paradoxical “green colonialism” that will only benefit the energy transition of the North, depredates ecosystems and the dwindling resources of the people. It is time to imagine ways for our energy transition with fair and democratic strategic planning, attentive to environmental impact. On the parched football pitch in Alfarcito, one of Aerocene’s aerosolar sculptures took flight this time with a new message, epitome of the synergy of the debates: “In complementarity, we take care of water”. But can art really redesign the future?

A clear example of what the Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui calls “cosmotechnics”, the work of the Aerocene community aspires to a historically, cosmologically and locally situated technology. It does not want to push the boundaries of art at the expense of technique, but the idea relies on encouraging a more ambitious and promising dialogue. Since modernity, we have been thinking about how new media has changed the languages of art, but their interdisciplinary projects have raised a more important question and some inspiring answers: how can the imagination of art transform technology? For example, by preserving that moving continuum of earth and air of the salt flats, fragile remnants of a sublime landscape that indigenous communities have preserved for thousands of years?

According to The Climate Book, Indigenous peoples make up only 5% of the global population and occupy less than a third of the planet’s territories, yet they are responsible for preserving 80% of the Earth’s diversity. On the thirsty altiplano of the Puna, they continue to guard the water and salt flats, in immemorial harmony with the starry sky, llamas, vicuñas, cacti and a few olive trees.

The resistance of indigenous communities against lithium extraction in a work of art in the Puna

We are inside the light: in the meadow of the llamas of Don Luis, surrounded by mountains, almost four thousand metres from the sea. The sky is light blue, light blue. And the rocks, partly orange. And here and there, there is a little green. With these three colours, and the silvery, celestial white, reflection and origin in the Big Bang, of the Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc basin, he manages everything. To shine with beauty and to live. When they come out of their pen, the llamas look at us with their round, big eyes, with their long and very arched eyelashes. One by one they come out and stare at us. They run towards the pasture and get lost to us. But not to Don Luis. He knows where they are even though they run in all directions, at full speed. I ask what those nylon bags are, hanging from the wires on a plot of land he fenced off. We go there and I also see a very elegant scarecrow. “It didn’t work,” laughs Don Luis. There are three or four bean plants left. “And how much does each plant yield?” asks the historian Bruno Fornillo. “Two tons”, Don Luis answers seriously. He waits for the joke to sink in, looks at our faces, then bursts out laughing.

Sociologist Maristella Svampa, a specialist in socio-environmentalism, and political scientist Melisa Argento, one of the people who knows the most about lithium in the country, follow him. Claudia Aboaf, Argentina’s foremost environmental science fiction writer, establishes crazy relationships between stars and animals.

And we are all inside a work of art. This – which is very real – is also part of a work: a sort of interspecies, intercultural and interdisciplinary performance led by the Aerocene community. Aerocene invited people from a wide range of disciplines to be there. The aforementioned, and also essayist Graciela Speranza, gallery owner Orly Benzacar, curator Inés Katzenstein, lawyers of the Asociación de Abogades Ambientalistas, Gastón Chillier and Enrique Viale, scientists and space technicians and, of course, the most important people in this story: the Kolla and Atacama communities resisting the barbaric advance of lithium extraction in their territories, which they have inhabited for millennia in coexistence with all the other beings that conform this ecology. Verónica Chávez, president of the Santuario Tres Pozos community, a village in the basin, summarizes: “We have to defend ourselves from the abuse, there are communities here that want to live in peace just as much as the fox, the vicuña and the lizard”.

“This is an artwork”, I was saying, a work of relational art undertaken with an impressive imagination, engineering and poetics. We were all completely involved. We lived with the community in San Francisco de Alfarcito. We chatted, we were part of the workshops, we learned about their calm worldview, woven with the earth as life itself is woven, almost unbelievable given the voracious ferocity they have faced for over five hundred years, incredibly resilient.

We hear about the apus: the protective hills that are just as animated as we are. Before you think that such thinking might be magical, remember that “the markets” are spoken of daily as if they were gods. There is no doubt that the apus are more vital than the markets. We ate exquisite stews. We shared plates, cutlery, and jokes. We looked at the stars: dead cold, (the temperature drops a lot at night), we sat with our backs to the (very few) lights of the village and saw the glittering milky way, so full of stars and curved that, (Bruno Fornillo noticed it first), we felt the shape of the vault of the sky as the ancients must have perceived it, those from before light – and other- pollution. As it is still perceived by the people who live in territories that have not yet been completely destroyed by the West, which never tires of spitting out the bones of everything it swallows. We saw Nebulae. The southern cross as an inescapable sign. Shooting stars. We all wanted to see some: our own, everyone’s, whatever. We saw them. And then we we entered the house to sing and dance together. How to tell the story of a gathering of people who, just hours before were all strangers, or almost strangers? How do I tell you that bridges flowed between each and every one of us?

Bridges of coming and going as if we were sailing in warm waters and, every now and then, bang, an embrace made of words or bodies dancing and singing or sharing things. Many things.

We brought back beautiful stories, like the one Levi, a writer from San Francisco de Alfarcito, told us, which his grandmother used to tell him: in the past, the ojitos de agua were very wild and swallowed the llamas of the salt caravaners. There was one eye in the south and another in the north of the Salinas Grandes. Grandfather found out a way to retrieve the llamas with the salt load: he had to find a very fast horse, faster than water. He had to enter the northern eye running so fast that the horse’s legs would beat the water and make bubbles. Until the bubbles appeared in the southern eye. And then they would expel the stray llamas. “Now,” said Levi, “the little eyes are tame.” “Of course,” said Claudia Aboaf, “now everything wild, everything alive in this territory is at risk.”

We attended the community assemblies – there were people from many Salinas villages in San Francisco de Alfarcito, the pre-Columbian location of the gathering – who took each decision by a show of hands, by consensus. This is how, after two days of workshops, the message of the aerial sculpture that the Aerocene community created for this event emerged: a balloon, or rather a rhombus, made of an ultra-light material that flies without burning or wasting anything. With the energy of the sun and the air. They had done it in the same salt flats in 2020: the aerosolar sculptures came and went in this almost transparent sky. And they achieved a lot of records: it was the first time that a certified balloon that uses no fuel – nor, obviously, burns anything – flew in the Earth’s sky. Operated by a woman.

Voted by the communities, the message for this year’s balloon-rombo says: “In complementarity, we take care of the water”. Complementarity: we are talking about a socio-ecosystem. For some, naming it an ecosystem might be to ignore the human societies that inhabit it. To call the land over which they advance like brutal conquerors a desert. A founding operation of our Argentine Nation. This is what the ruling party in Jujuy is doing when it decides to ignore the free, prior and informed consultation required by ILO Convention 169, to which the nation adheres. It must be noted that the national government does not seem concerned about Jujuy’s government’s decision.

Communities must give consent, or refuse, to what is done in their territories. Lithium mining is a huge drain on fresh water. In a context of drought. And in a socio-ecosystem of water scarcity. The underground flow of the water that comes from the mountain slopes are referred to as “veins” here. And they are right: the salina is alive and water is its blood. If you cut its veins, you kill it. When concessions are given to large international mining corporations, they are deciding to sacrifice a territory. And its inhabitants. As the lawyer Enrique Viale says, an “el-doradist” vision: that ghost that has haunted Latin America since the conquest. That golden palace – raw material, commodity, staple products such as soy or oil, and of course, lithium – that will all of a sudden make us wealthy. This does not exist: GM soy with its poisons has not made us rich, Vaca Muerta has not made us rich, lithium is not going to make us rich. Moreover, the companies pay the province a mere 3% of the value at the surface of the mine – not to mention many of their accrued costs – in royalties on what, according to their own sworn declarations – they extract from the mines. Citizen, raise your hand if you would not appreciate paying taxes according to your own income tax returns, without further control. Well, the mining companies do. And they pay the national government an even more ridiculous 1%. This does not have to be the case. You cannot decide to destroy a territory over the will of the people who have inhabited it for millennia. You cannot blithely decide to sacrifice the other. And the other has been the same for more than five hundred years: the indigenous people. The right to health and to a healthy environment, among other human rights, as lawyer Gastón Chillier pointed out at the meeting, are among the first to be violated by extractivist companies and the governments that support them.

And there we were all together. We saw the premiere of Pacha, the film that Tomás Saraceno directed with Maxi Laina. It is an open, endless, collaborative film. Like this very meeting. Like the ceremony of offering to the Pachamama in the mornings, in the bitter cold, in the bright air, asking Pacha for the strength to continue the dialogue and the resistance.