"White gold" is the synonym for lithium for companies and officials who prioritize money. "Strategic natural resource", argue the scientists who promise that it can be industrialized in Argentina and attract more money for the State. "Our life" summarizes the indigenous peoples who have lived for generations in the place that has become precious for economic and political power: the salt flats, the cradle of lithium, a mineral on the rise, used in batteries for telephones, computers and electric cars.
Politicians (of different colors) promote the exploitation of lithium, judges are unaware of indigenous rights and some sectors of science are closer to extractivism than to native peoples.
Lithium is found in those huge white plains that are often photographed by tourists. Place of life and work of indigenous communities kollas and atacama in Jujuy and Salta.
The Fénix lithium mining project came into operation in 1998. Located in the Salar del Hombre Muerto, in Antofagasta de la Sierra (Catamarca), it is in the hands of the multinational FMC Lithium. It was the beginning of scale lithium mining in Argentina.
Starting in the late 2000s, a new stage of the mineral began, with a greater arrival of international companies and active policies of Kirchnerism (and provincial governments). Corporate advertising, and governments, call the “lithium triangle” the puna region of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, which would collect more than 80 percent of the world's lithium.
Jujuy has two projects in operation, both started in 2014. Olaroz, on behalf of Sales de Jujuy, a partnership between the company Jujuy Energía y Minería Sociedad del Estado (Jemse) and the multinationals Orocobre (Australia) and Toyota (Japan). And the Cauchari project, in the hands of Minera Exar, of the Canadian Lithium Americas Corp (part of its shares belong to the automaker Mitsubishi). Both are in Susques, 200 kilometers northwest of San Salvador de Jujuy.
Although it is an area of indigenous communities, the process of free, prior and informed consultation established by the laws on indigenous rights was never carried out.
Both governors (Eduardo Fellner, PJ-FPV, like the current Gerardo Morales, UCR-Cambiemos) were (and are) the best lobbyists for mining companies, in general, and for lithium exploitation in particular.
Mauricio Macri promotes it repeatedly. In August 2018, from Purmamarca, he affirmed that the province will be a "leader" in lithium production and promised: "Jujuy will become a world power."
“YPF of lithium” was the name of the bill that they promoted from Kirchnerism in 2015. Presented by deputies Carlos Heller and Juan Carlos June (Solidarity Party), the 74-article bill declared lithium reserves as a “resource of a strategic nature ”and established the exploration, exploitation, exploitation concession and industrialization of“ public interest ”. He also proposed the creation of "State Society Lithium Strategic Deposits".
"We do not say 'no to mining, we say' yes to rational mining ', within certain exploitation rules and above all taking care that the interests of our country are duly protected," Heller said at the launch of the proposal. The deputy June was in the same sense: "In Argentina there must be a drastic change in the exploitation of lithium, among the prevailing system of concessions to the large mining companies of the world, changing to a great role for the State."
Heller is also president of Banco Credicoop. And June is the head of the Cultural Center of Cooperation (of the same bank), a reference space for a sector of progressivism and the Buenos Aires left.
Heller and June's bill is 15 pages and 4843 words. And it mentions indigenous peoples only twice. Article 24 states that there will be a representative of "the original communities" on the board of the National Lithium Commission and, in article 30, it explains that the environmental evaluation process must include the participation of indigenous communities "to in order to consider and apply their opinion when developing the lithium exploitation activity ”.
According to the proposed law, indigenous opinion is not binding and is far from being “consent” (as established by current legislation).
The bill maintains a great coincidence with the advance of the soybean model, the hydrocarbon legislation (including fracking in Vaca Muerta) and the mega-mining laws: it ignores all the indigenous legislation in force.
The “specialist in the field” who acted as advisor to the “YPF lithium” project was Nicolás Gutman. According to his curriculum vitae, “Master in Economics and Public Policy, George Mason University, United States. Researcher at the Department of Political Economy and the World System of the Cultural Center for Cooperation ”. In an interview on FM La Tribu he explained in detail the economic advantages of the State appropriating the income (and thus competing with foreign companies). Faced with a question, he acknowledged the unusual: he had never visited a salt flat (where lithium is), much less sought consensus with the indigenous peoples of the place.
Another research area on the subject is the Study Group on Geopolitics and Natural Assets. A heterogeneous space, both in training (includes economists, political scientists and historians, among others) and in views on extractivism: from no to mining to yes to exploitation with greater income capture by the State and (promised ) subsequent profit spill.
“Geopolitics of lithium” is the book published by the group in 2015. Bruno Fornillo is the coordinator. Ariel Slipak is one of the co-authors. Degree in economics, Conicet grant holder, PhD in Social Sciences. Although he prefers to be identified by what does not appear in the book and does appear on his Twitter account: a member of the Marabunta social organization and union secretary of the Asociación Gremial Docente (AGD-UBA).
On September 21, he participated in the talk “Lithium boom? Regional reality and debates in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile ”, in Buenos Aires.
He criticized the business-government idea of the "Saudi Arabia of lithium" (as the "lithium triangle" of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina is often referred to) and recalled the history of dependence on oil and soybeans.
But he also pointed out that lithium "poses a dilemma because it could be a transition material to a non-fossil energy model." He specified that the "controversy" has several axes: the country's dispute with the powers that want to exploit the resource, the appropriation of income, employment, the role of science, caring for the environment and consulting the communities.
He questioned the legal aspects that provincialize the resource (lithium). He considered, not far from controversial, that the lack of economic resources leads the provinces (and also the universities) to seek money from the private sector. He recalled that companies only pay three percent of royalties to the provinces, but it is not on billing and without calculating tax benefits that they have. "They are paid to take the lithium," he denounced.
“From neo-developmentalist policies it is proposed that income be absorbed and with that social policies are made. We are not intelligent nor for that ”, affirmed. And he detailed that the Olaroz lithium project employs 250 people, less than 0.5 percent of Jujuy's private employment.
He explained that in Chile, at the hands of "the Chicago boys", the appropriation of income by the State is "very important" compared to Argentina. But above all, he promoted the Bolivian model, where - he remarked - "the resource was nationalized and the entire value chain was intervened."
He affirmed that there is control to make it "less polluting" and vindicated the UBA and Conicet scientist, Ernesto Calvo, who is developing a lithium extraction technique that would be less harmful to the environment.
“You can contribute to energy transitions if you think of a popular participation scheme. You can create a state company that controls, that discusses environmental issues, audits of the communities, "proposed Slipak.
In Slipak's presentation, the idea of an agreement with the exploitation of lithium stands out, from a critical position to the role of multinationals and the lack of care for the environment.
Can mining be done with care for the environment and respect for indigenous communities? For years indigenous peoples in struggle and socio-environmental assemblies have known that it is not possible.
Slipak clarifies that, in addition to consulting the communities, the “precautionary principle”, in force in the General Environmental Law (25675), must be prioritized: when there is danger of serious or irreversible damage (such as affecting aquifers) measures must be taken that protect the environment, even if there is no scientific certainty of the affectation (see interview box).
The Salinas Grandes include the departments of Cochinoca and Tumbaya, in Jujuy, and La Poma and Cobres, in Salta. They make up the Laguna de Guayatayoc sub-basin, which in turn is part of the Puna basin. Lithium mining companies started arriving in 2010.
The 33 Kolla and Atakama communities of the place were organized in the Mesa de Pueblos Originales de la Cuenca de Guayatayoc and Salinas Grandes and began with direct actions (information campaign, marches to the provincial capitals, roadblock) and legal actions to be respected current rights. According to national legislation (including the National Constitution), ILO Convention 169 and the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for any activity that could affect them, there must be free, prior consent and informed of the native peoples.
They appealed to the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation to enforce indigenous rights. There was a hearing in April 2012, where it was revealed that the highest court (with the action that day of Ricardo Lorenzetti, Elena Highton de Nolasco and Juan Carlos Maqueda) was unaware of the rights of indigenous peoples. Over and over they asked what the consultation entailed and how it should be. On a recurring basis, they interrupted the explanation of the lawyer for the communities, Alicia Chalabe.
Sung result: the Supreme Court ignored the case and sent them to the provincial courts. Where the Judicial Power and the political power sit at the same table.
Clemente Flores, Kolla and one of the spokesmen for the communities, is convinced that, if they had not been organized and taken action, today the mining companies would be exploiting the salt flats, as in Susques. It explains that the judicial route is one of the fronts, but the fundamental one is the territorial organization.
Flores also questions the scientific sector that promotes lithium mining: "Some academics say that it can be exploited, processing the mineral in the country, with benefits for Argentines and respecting the environment and communities ... it is a Chinese story, we do not believe in that. ”. And he compares: “What would those scientists say if we go to his house, we do not respect his rights and we make disasters for him? That is what they are wanting to do in our house ”.
Environment and pressures
Lithium mining is part of the natural resource extraction model. Unlike large-scale metal mining, it does not blast mountains or use explosives and cyanide. But it does compromise water sources, in a region of extreme drought.
The National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) already warned in 2002 about the mining risk in the Puna region: “Its main problems are competition with the agricultural sector for water resources, habitat destruction due to the construction of infrastructure works and long-term effect of pollution ”.
In December 2010, the Coordinator of Aboriginal Organizations of Jujuy (COAJ) asked biology experts Jorge Gonnet and geology Aníbal Manzur for a technical inspection in an area of the salt flats where a mining survey had been carried out weeks earlier. “Environmental considerations in relation to the construction of mining and / or hydrogeological prospecting wells in the Salinas Grandes”, the report is called that concludes: “The perforations carried out are generating impacts and / or risks on the surface saline levels and aquifers (... ) The drilling presents permanent upwelling of low salinity waters coming from deep aquifers (…) It will have significant consequences on the saline system and will limit the possibility of extraction of surface salts (…) There is a high possibility that the diffusion of salts is being favored superficial to deep aquifers of low salinity ”.
One of the referents of the Coaj is Natalia Sarapura, who assumed the head of the Secretariat of Indigenous Peoples of the government of Gerardo Morales.
Enrique González, from the Apacheta group that opposes mining, recalled that lithium companies have already violated indigenous rights by settling in without respecting free, prior and informed consultation. About the present, he pointed to the provincial government. “There is advance of mining companies and the situation is complicated because the Government entered the communities with the Secretariat of Indigenous Peoples and plays with the need for work. There is a lot of pressure from Governor Morales, who even delays the processes of the communities that oppose them, ”González denounced.
He specified three points agreed upon by a dozen Kolla communities: reject any type of large-scale extraction of raw material, declare the Guayatayoc Basin (where the Salinas Grandes are) ancestral territory, community property and a sacred place; and require governments (municipal, provincial and national) not to take any "decision or negotiation" measure on indigenous territory.
USA and repression
The governor of Jujuy, Gerardo Morales, traveled to the United States and on November 15 he met with the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs of the State Department, Kevin O'Reilly. He highlighted the possibilities of developing lithium mining in the province. “The Government reaffirmed the profile and mining potential of Jujuy in terms of lithium and the generation of renewable energy. These items are pillars of the new productive matrix of a Jujuy that provides much more, ”the Jujuy government press release underlined.
On November 21, indigenous communities mobilized in Tilcara and carried out a selective and momentary roadblock to denounce the advance on their territories and the specific harassment of the Cueva del Inca community. They were repressed by the Jujuy police, with six detainees (including a minor), rubber bullets and beatings.
“The provincial government came out to deny the undeniable, the repression. The large provincial incommunicado media turned a blind eye to events. The social networks and alternative media managed to spread the word ”, indicated the communities on the night of November 21, when the detainees were released. And they recalled: “Given the serious situation our territories are suffering, we reject mega-mining in the Puna Jujuy (in particular the Chinchillas project), which destroys the Pachamama, blows up our hills, destroys biodiversity, pollutes water and puts our life and future generations ”.
By Darío Aranda / Photographic series: Vaca Bonsai
"The position of the communities must be respected"Interview with Ariel Slipak.
-What is the role of communities in lithium mining?
-The participation of the communities is crucial, their traditions must be respected, although they are not the only ones involved. I am in favor of free, prior and informed consultation (basic right present in national and international legislation, which is never applied in Argentina), but they need information.
-What happens if the community says no to mining?
-My position, not that of the entire Study Group, is that this position of the community should be respected.
-You vindicated the work of the scientist Ernesto Calvo to exploit lithium in a "less polluting" way. But this development is for mining companies and not for indigenous people, who will suffer the consequences. It is a stance to investigate that.
-It is true that Calvo does science but did not dialogue with the communities involved.