‘Indigenous people’s livelihoods at risk in scramble for lithium, the new white gold’

By Eniko Horvath and Amanda Romero Medina

Eniko Horvath and Amanda Romero Medina of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre investigate how communities in Chile, Bolivia and Argentina are bearing the brunt of demand for the water-hungry precious metal, with only one of the top producers having a human rights policy

For the past 50 years, Raúl and his family have worked in agriculture in Peine, a small community in the middle of Chile’s Atacama Desert. “I enjoy agriculture. This is my life,” he says, as he waters his produce from a narrow stream. Raúl proudly displays the plum tomatoes, towering corn, and hearty beets he grows, and then sells at the local store.

But in this water-scarce region, Raúl’s goods have an unusual competitor for water: lithium, a key mineral for the world economy that threatens to leave communities without the vital water resources they need to survive.   

The so-called “lithium triangle” – an area spanning Chile, Bolivia and Argentina – holds around 60 per cent of the world’s lithium reserves. Demand for lithium, which is used for electric car batteries and storing renewable energy, is projected to increase tenfold over the next decade, leading all three countries to double down on being world leaders in this “white gold”.

Chile's farmers are having to compete for water with major lithium producers. (Credit: Jess Kraft/Shutterstock)

Chile is already leading the pack, with the second largest production of lithium worldwide in 2018 after Australia, and the Chilean government taking steps to become number one. Argentina has the world’s largest lithium reserves, with two active production sites and over 60 projects under development. The second largest reserves are in the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, which President Evo Morales hopes to tap in his ambitious plans for lithium extraction and producing batteries.

This lithium boom is having an impact on a dozen mostly indigenous communities like Raúl’s. Across the border in Argentina, Martina and Juan from San Jose de Miraflores worry about how lithium extraction in the Salinas Grandes salt flats and the Guayantayoc lagoon will affect their livelihoods. “I have 200 llamas,” says Juan, “not much compared to others, [but] selling the products we make from llamas is our livelihood.”

Martina says the 24 families in their community sell llama meat, textiles and crafts made from llama wool. But she fears that lithium extraction will swallow up the water their animals need to survive. “Water is life,” she says. In other communities, indigenous people live from artisanal salt harvesting, and from producing food such as peas and potatoes – all of which require water.

We are not against lithium. We just want our voices to be heard

Water is an essential part of lithium extraction in the triangle, allowing it to be sourced through a process that is significantly cheaper than hard rock mining. The lithium is contained in salt water brines beneath salt flats in the three countries. This brine is extracted with pumps and directed into large pools, where the water evaporates, leaving a mixture of lithium and other minerals. These are separated using a chemical process, and then sent off and used to make batteries, among other uses.   

The impact is already being felt. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, where lithium extraction has been under way for longer, communities are experiencing water shortages affecting their home lives and agriculture. The world’s driest desert, Atacama has not escaped the impact of climate change. But this has been made worse by water-reliant industries’ actions in the region, including lithium extraction. Chemical companies Albermarle and SQM have both been accused of extracting more than their legal quota of salt water. Tourism and copper-mining has also put pressure on these scarce water resources.

To sweeten the pill, mining companies have made agreements with communities, which include financial benefits, jobs, and other contributions, such as building or repairing schools and providing scholarships. While some residents are happy with these agreements, others question what will happen after the boom, especially since many of these provisions replace what used to be state services.

Brine is extracted from salt water flats in South America to obtain lithium. (Credit: Klaus Balzano/Shutterstock)

Chile is already leading the pack, with the second largest production of lithium worldwide in 2018 after Australia, and the Chilean government taking steps to become number one. Argentina has the world’s largest lithium reserves, with two active production sites and over 60 projects under development. The second largest reserves are in the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, which President Evo Morales hopes to tap in his ambitious plans for lithium extraction and producing batteries.

This lithium boom is having an impact on a dozen mostly indigenous communities like Raúl’s. Across the border in Argentina, Martina and Juan from San Jose de Miraflores worry about how lithium extraction in the Salinas Grandes salt flats and the Guayantayoc lagoon will affect their livelihoods. “I have 200 llamas,” says Juan, “not much compared to others, [but] selling the products we make from llamas is our livelihood.”

Martina says the 24 families in their community sell llama meat, textiles and crafts made from llama wool. But she fears that lithium extraction will swallow up the water their animals need to survive. “Water is life,” she says. In other communities, indigenous people live from artisanal salt harvesting, and from producing food such as peas and potatoes – all of which require water.

We are not against lithium. We just want our voices to be heard

Water is an essential part of lithium extraction in the triangle, allowing it to be sourced through a process that is significantly cheaper than hard rock mining. The lithium is contained in salt water brines beneath salt flats in the three countries. This brine is extracted with pumps and directed into large pools, where the water evaporates, leaving a mixture of lithium and other minerals. These are separated using a chemical process, and then sent off and used to make batteries, among other uses.   

The impact is already being felt. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, where lithium extraction has been under way for longer, communities are experiencing water shortages affecting their home lives and agriculture. The world’s driest desert, Atacama has not escaped the impact of climate change. But this has been made worse by water-reliant industries’ actions in the region, including lithium extraction. Chemical companies Albermarle and SQM have both been accused of extracting more than their legal quota of salt water. Tourism and copper-mining has also put pressure on these scarce water resources.

To sweeten the pill, mining companies have made agreements with communities, which include financial benefits, jobs, and other contributions, such as building or repairing schools and providing scholarships. While some residents are happy with these agreements, others question what will happen after the boom, especially since many of these provisions replace what used to be state services.

A new Amnesty International campaign, launched on 21 March, challenges car companies to create the world’s first ethical battery in the next five years. It also calls on companies to strengthen their human rights practices and engage with both suppliers and governments in lithium-producing countries. As Amnesty’s Secretary General, Kumi Naidoo, said: “We need to change course now, or those least responsible for climate change – indigenous communities and children – will pay the price for the shift away from fossil fuels.”

Solar, wind and renewable energy companies that need lithium for energy storage also have an opportunity to meet this challenge. Energy companies must put indigenous communities and workers at the heart of their operations to ensure that the transition to a low-carbon economy is not only fast, but fair.

Source: Ethical Corp

Related to SDG 10: Reduced inequalities and SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy

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