North-east Argentina forms one corner of a now famous ‘lithium triangle’, which also includes Bolivia and Chile. The area, rich in the resource that powers smartphones and electric vehicles, has caught the attention of foreign investors.
Between 2015 and 2018, investment in lithium exploration and production in Argentina increased by 928%, according to the Ministry of Mining, which has revised estimates of reserves from 13 to 60 million tonnes.
However, investment is accompanied by social and environmental tensions as indigenous people resist new projects saying they deplete water resources and violate their right to consultation, enshrined in the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169.
"We say no to lithium if a prior, free and informed consultation is not made," said Clemente Flores, a figurehead for the El Angosto indigenous community.
Conflict centres on the province of Jujuy, which contains 36% of the nation’s reserves. Sales de Jujuy, a company formed of Japan's Toyota, Canada's Orocobre and provincial company JEMSE, operates in the town of Olaroz, the only operational mine in the province. In 2017 it produced 12,000 tonnes of lithium, which it expects to expand 35,000 annually in the coming years.
Jujuy is one of three Argentine provinces to mine lithium, along with Catamarca and Salta. The province used to cultivate sugar and tobacco and extract zinc prior to focusing on lithium. Since the 2015 election of President Mauricio Macri and Jujuy governor Gerardo Morales, lithium exploitation has boomed.
It takes place in three areas: Olaroz, which has the approval of local communities; the Salar de Jama; and the Salinas Grandes Basin and Laguna de Guayatavoc, where 33 indigenous communities live.
Among them are the communities of Tres Pozos Sanctuary, Aguas Blancas, Tusquillas, Casabindo, Agua de Castilla and El Moreno. The majority don't have property deeds and recognise the territory as ancestral.
Prior, free and informed consultation is not a mere meeting with the communities
In 2010, Salinas Grandes and Guayatayoc communities filed a collective injunction against the states of Jujuy and Salta and against the national government demanding respect for their right to consent to lithium exploitation.
This supranational Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CIDH), based in San José, Costa Rica, is currently processing the case.
the year Argentina ratified ILO Convention 1969 on Tribal and Indigenous peoples
Argentina ratified ILO Convention 169 in 1992 and recognises the ethnic and cultural pre-existence of indigenous peoples in its 1994 constitution.
"Prior, free and informed consultation is not a mere meeting with the communities,” said environmental lawyer Alicia Chalabe. “It is a procedure that must be regulated, in which the information must be provided in a way that is clear and that communities can evaluate."
In February, communities blocked access to a mining enterprise in the Guayatayoc Lagoon. The provincial government approved the project but indigenous people hadn’t. The companies were forced to abandon it.
Around the same time, communities also rejected a tender by JEMSE for mining projects in Salinas Grandes, Laguna de Guayatayoc and Salar de Jama. The provincial government initially suspended the call but then extended it into March.
"We firmly decided that we will not accept prospection, exploration and exploitation of lithium in the entire territory of the Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc basins, in accordance with our current legislation and our constitutional rights," Flores said.
The provincial government and companies involved in the conflicts with communities did not respond to Diálogo Chino’s requests for comments.
Communities’ rejection of new lithium projects in Jujuy comes as production increases in Olaroz, the first plant in operation. There, the environmental impacts have become visible.
Lithium is obtained through a process of evaporation in which deposits are pumped from underground into pools on the surface using brine. This requires two million litres of water for each tonne of the mineral extracted. Since part of the water is salty, it cannot be used for human consumption. The quantities used could affect underground aquifers.
Water scarcity affects communities who depend on activities such as agriculture. Some areas in Jujuy and Catamarca where projects have already been approved have also been deemed critical for biodiversity.
Lithium production uses irritants. They have toxic effects and emit a white powder that affects people and plants
According to Marcelo Sticco, a hydrogeologist from the University of Buenos Aires who in February toured the Olaroz plant with communities, production methods involve an “environmental sacrifice”. He said communities now regret approving the project.
Sticco said they are forced to move far away due to the shortage of water suitable for human and animal consumption. Movements in the soil, construction work and the passage of the trucks also impact water flows, flora and fauna.
"Lithium production uses irritants. They have toxic effects and emit a white powder that affects people and plants. That means there is no food for livestock, which also has their mucous membranes and eyes affected," said Sticco.
Companies claim that, based on reserves, they can obtain lithium carbonate for 40 years. However, Sticco said that data handled by the companies themselves, shows current projects will be exhausted within five.
He said there are alternative ways of producing lithium that use more environmentally friendly technology and would considerably reduce the risks of water depletion.
All lithium projects require an environmental impact study, which must justify the chosen method. However, communities say companies do not comply with this requirement and nor does the government enforce it.
Open to investment
Argentina, Chile and Bolivia account for around half the total lithium reserves in the world, according to the US Geological Survey. Of the three, Argentina is the only one that permits exploitation freely through concessions, which Macri introduced in 2015.
Experts say the lack of regulation coupled with low taxes makes Argentina more attractive for investors. According to Argentina's Mining Code, companies must pay a 3% royalty, calculated on quantities extracted and declared in companies’ balance sheets.
In neighbouring Chile, former dictator Augusto Pinochet declared lithium a strategic resource in 1979. Since then, only two companies have been authorised to extract the mineral: SQM, which sold its Argentina operations in 2018 to China's Ganfeng, and Rockwood.
In Bolivia, the Salar de Uyuni, a tourism hotspot holding the country’s largest lithium resources, was declared a ‘state-owned reserve’. Granting mining rights is prohibited and exploitation is carried out by the government.
The government of Evo Morales’ developed its own extraction technique along with a battery production facility in partnership with German company AC System.