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

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Estamos adentro de la luz: en el potrero de las llamas de Don Luis, rodeados de montañas, a casi cuatro mil metros del mar. El cielo es celeste, celeste. Las rocas, medio anaranjadas. Y, acá y allá, hay un poco de verde. Con estos tres colores, y el blanco pWe 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.