Argentina’s Colla activists and the ‘lithium triangle’

From ToxicLeaks

Global demand for lithium[edit | edit source]

As the planet seeks to build a sustainable future, electric vehicles (EV) play a critical role in reducing carbon emissions linked to transportation. That can’t happen without the lithium required for EV and solar batteries, as well as smartphones and other electronic devices that keep the planet connected. Demand for lithium has already taken off, with the price doubling between 2016 and 2018. A 2017 World Bank report predicts a nearly 1200 percent increase in lithium demand by 2050, assuming an aggressive global effort to hold warming to the 2°C level. That creates opportunity for extractive industries operating in the developing world, but less so for the communities that must live with the environmental and cultural impacts of multinational companies operating lithium mines in their towns.  

The March 2019 Nordic Electric Vehicle (EV) Summit in Oslo provided an opportunity for Amnesty International leaders to showcase the damage caused by mining the minerals needed to power the future. They noted that Argentina was a new concern for environmental harm to indigenous peoples.

South America’s lithium triangle[edit | edit source]

The Jujay region of Argentina is part of the “lithium triangle,” where roughly 60 to 70 percent of earth’s lithium can be found in the Puna Plateau. It stretches some 1,800 kilometers, across extreme northwest Argentina and into Bolivia and Chile. The triangle has been called the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” by firms and their investors seeking astronomical profits through mining concessions. Among them is Canada’s Lithium Americas, which expects its Cauchari-Olaroz mine to produce for 40 years beginning in 2020.

So is Australia’s Orocobre, operating a joint venture at Cauchari while also launching Salar de Olaroz in partnership with Japanese and Argentinan firms under the local company name of Sales de Jujay. The facility has been operational since 2014 with a capacity of 17,500 metric tons of “white gold” lithium. FMC, which completed the spinoff of its Livent lithium operations in March 2019, operates the Salar de Hombre Muerto mines; on March 27, Livent’s CEO said it looks to acquire new lithium sites in Argentina.

Also in the neighborhood is Canada’s Kinross Gold, operating the Maricunga mine and already at odds over water rights and a 2017 oil spill with the colla, the local indigenous people of the Atacama Puna.

Impacts to the Colla people[edit | edit source]

The global mining companies insist that they follow all environmental regulations, and that the lithium mines benefit the local communities. “They point to the creation of hundreds of jobs and investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in one of Argentina’s poorest regions,” said the Washington Post during a December 2016 investigation. Companies also said they fund education and economic development.

Yet many colla disagree and insist they live on ancestral lands threatened by the lithium boom. Already, just since 2015, the Ministry of Mines reports investment in Argentina’s lithium is dramatically up. The mining companies are making millions but not returning benefits to the Jujay communities. In one village, residents already rely on trucked-in water because the lithium mines demand so much water for brining and related operations. Each ton of lithium requires an estimated 1.9 million liters of water, but the high plateau is extremely arid. Similar mines in Chile used up two-thirds of the entire water supply.

Indigenous leaders also complain that toxic water contamination threatens crops, livestock and people. They fear air and soil pollution, and the long-term impacts on the Jujuy region’s unique biodiversity.

The colla are fighting back, with protests and road blocks in February 2018 to demand that Guayatayoc lagoon be protected and the Salinas Grandes basin be closed to state-owned JEMSE lithium exploration.

Meanwhile, regional Governor Gerardo Morales pays lip service to the concerns of indigenous colla who must be consulted over projects, but vows that the lithium mining projects move forward. "Jujuy is going to be a leader in lithium and solar energy,” he said in their defense during a March 20 legislative session. “Lithium is the heart of the energy and automotive matrix of the future of the world."

Toxic mining history in Jujay[edit | edit source]

There’s no disputing the importance of lithium to a sustainable future, but lithium mining is also at the heart of the colla people. A coalition of 20 to 30 communities demands the ancestral lands be protected and their natural and cultural heritage remain uninterrupted, just as they have protested for years. In fact, it’s the cultural heritage of humanity: UNESCO listed the Quebrada de Humahuaca valley of Jujay on the World Heritage List in 2003 for “outstanding universal value” that dates back some 10,000 years.

It’s also not the colla’s first experience with catastrophic mine consequences. A lead smelting plant was built by the Metal Huasi company in 1955 in the middle of the colla village of Abra Pampa, and operated until 1980. It wasn’t until 2017 that the Argentinian government announced the site remediation of 15,000 tons of lead-tainted waste was complete. That was far too late for 14,000 residents, including 80 percent of children, who had lead toxicity. The colla people have seen this before. They don’t want to see it again, and they stand as sentinels to a global community investing in a lithium-powered world.