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Lithium: the senselessness of trying to mitigate climate change at the expense of both nature itself and local communities

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Pía Marchegiani and María Laura Castillo Díaz

The race to control the supply chain of what we now know as critical minerals, or minerals for the energy transition, marks a new chapter in the global geopolitical dispute. In the wake of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which demonstrated the vulnerability of supply chains, countries in North America, Europe and Asia, particularly China, are competing not only to dominate the technologies of the final products, but also for access to the deposits of these minerals, which are currently central to energy storage, as in the case of batteries for electric cars. In the context of the climate crisis, these products could reduce dependence on fossil fuels if the supporting infrastructure is in place and they are supplied by renewable sources.

Countries such as Argentina, which together with Bolivia and Chile have around 60% of lithium reserves in brine, see this interest in lithium as a window of opportunities to attract investment, particularly in a context of high prices. To a much lesser extent, they seek to underpin processes linked to the development of battery parts in the country. However, they pay little attention to the values of the ecosystems in which lithium is found or to the way of life of the communities that have lived there for hundreds of years.

Argentina is currently the world’s fourth largest producer of this mineral and has approximately 50 projects in different phases. Focusing on the generation of foreign exchange required to repay the foreign debt, provincial and central governments prioritise these investments over complex but necessary hydrological studies to determine whether the operations can be realised without irreversible damage to the environment. This is particularly worrying in an extremely fragile region, where water is the scarce commodity that defines survival; its availability and quality could be seriously altered by the impacts of lithium mining, which has been considered true water mega-mining because of the volumes demanded in its processes.

The environmental management and policy tools designed to identify environmental impacts in order to prevent them are either not applied, such as the strategic environmental assessment, or are poorly applied, as mere formalisms, as is the case with the environmental impact assessment process. These processes are not undertaken from a holistic perspective that takes into account the whole basin – they are, instead, circumscribed to limited geographical areas – and do not integrate pre-existing water uses from other economic activities, nor those necessary for the life of communities and biodiversity in these areas. Lastly, they do not have a solid environmental framework, nor do they consider the cumulative or synergistic impact of ongoing or planned operations.

Information about the environment is not shared with the public, nor is there sufficient time invested to comply with the right to free, prior and informed consent, which requires time to communicate with the communities so they can understand the consequences of lithium extraction and the impact it has on their lives and culture, and give their consent when necessary.

As a result, communities such as those found in Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc have been resisting and defending their territory and rights for over twelve years.

Furthermore, lithium mining is promoted as the solution to climate change, ignoring the evidence that, in fact, the wetlands in which it is intended to be extracted, have a tremendous potential to contribute to the mitigation and adaptation of biodiversity and people to climate change. For example, micro-organisms that exist in these wetlands, have the capacity to capture and store carbon dioxide, while their degradation could lead to the release of greenhouse gases stored within them.

Considering lithium as an exportable commodity instead of solving the foreign exchange problem will most likely reinforce this problem by generating a new phase of dependent development, buying more expensive products such as possible electric cars. This leads to further problems regarding payment balances and the perpetuation of debt cycles, reinforcing once again the vicious cycle of exploiting nature to repay debt.

The loss of valuable biodiversity, traditions, Andean knowledges and cultures not only transforms these territories into sacrifice zones for the hyper-consumerist model of the global North, which does not seek to reduce its demand for minerals and nature, but also reinforces existing inequalities and blocks the possibilities of considering a paradigm shift that prioritizes the lives of people and ecosystems, and teaches us to live within the limits of our planet.