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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.
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