Economy

Electric Car Boom, A Billion-Dollar Opportunity For Lithium-Rich Chile

Global demand for lithium is on the rise thanks to its use in electric car batteries. That could mean big business for Chile, which has near 23% of the world’s reserves. A leftover dictatorship-era statute, however, threatens to stand in the way.

Salt flats in northern Chile's Atacama desert (Gio Iab)
Salt flats in northern Chile's Atacama desert (Gio Iab)
Juan Pablo Rioseco

SANTIAGO Traffic is still slow at the seven electric car charging stations that Chilectra, a local electricity provider, has set up around Santiago. But that will do doubt change, which is why the company is planning to install 20 more such stations – outside of hotels, office buildings and in residential developments.

"By 2020, at least 10% of the cars in major cities will be electric," says Jean Paul Zalaquett, Chilectra's innovation director.

What the owners of these cars don't know is that the batteries used to store that electricity also contain a local product: lithium carbonate. According to studies carried out by the Chilean Copper Commission, a government agency, Chile has close to 23% of the world's lithium reserves. Neighboring Argentina and Bolivia are also lithium-rich. Together the three countries boast more than half of the world's reserves.

Right now, Chile produces close to 40% of the approximately 140,000 tons of lithium carbonate sold annually around the world. Overall, the global lithium industry is worth some $800 million. Thanks to an expected boom in electric cars, the industry is likely to grow rapidly in the coming years – with annul production tripling by 2030, according to projections by the consulting firm Signumbox.

"It has already grown by between 5% and 7% over the past decade, basically because of electric car batteries," says Daniela Desormeaux, Signumbox's general manager.

But Chile also faces a real risk of falling behind in an industry it has long led. In the late 1970s, the military government of Augusto Pinochet classified lithium as a "strategic material" because of its possible uses in nuclear fission. The classification has kept potential investors at arms length by prohibiting the state from negotiating lithium extraction concessions.

As a result, lithium mining has been limited in Chile to just one location – in the northern salt flats of the Atacama desert. Only two companies operate there: SQM, a Chilean firm that produces 24% of the world's lithium; and Chemetall, a German company that accounts for 16% of global production. Both companies, whose concessions predate the restrictions, rent the desert land from the Chilean state.

Other countries with substantial lithium reserves are developing new mining projects at a much faster clip. Argentina has 15 such products in the works. Chile has fewer than five. And as the lithium industries develop in neighboring Argentina and Bolivia, Chile could also be eclipsed in terms of overall reserves.

"The Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia are much bigger than the salt flats in the Atacama. Plus the laws are better there," says Roberto Mallea, an expert from the Center of Mining and Metallurgical Research (CIMM) in Santiago. "And in Argentina there are numerous unexplored salt flats."

A backdoor approach

In order to strip lithium of its "strategic material" label, and thus authorize the state to issue extraction concessions, the Chilean government would have go through Congress, which could create major delays. To sidestep the problem, the government has instead floated the possibility of auctioning off so-called Special Operation Contracts, or CEOLs, which are usually associated with oil and gas extraction. CEOLs would be available only to companies that already possess mining rights, such as Li3 Energy, a Chile/U.S./South Korean firm with rights over part of Chile's Maricunga salt flats.

This potential "back-door" approach is favored by the current Chilean government, led by billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera. "We have 1,500 years worth of lithium, but in order to participate in the world market, we need to be more competitive," says Pablo Wagner, Chile's undersecretary of mining. "Before, Chile had a 50% market share. Now we're at about 41%. And if we don't do anything, we'll fall to 20%."

Chile would also do well to develop on the technology end so that it can compete in the lucrative market for producing lithium derivatives. Value-added materials like lithium hydroxide and lithium cathodes, also in high demand for use in batteries, are much more sophisticated and thus fetch a far higher selling price than does simple lithium carbonate.

Some local firms are beginning to make headway in this direction. The Korean company POSCO, one of the owners of Li3 Energy, has the technology to produce these more expensive lithium derivatives. And SQM has teamed up with Japan's Marubeni to set up an institution called the Center of Lithium Innovation (CIL), which operates within the University of Chile.

Jaime Alée, the CIL's director, has an even bigger dream: develop an entire lithium battery industry in Chile. "One lithium battery for an electric car costs $20,000. Chile's contribution to that right now is worth just $40," he says. "By 2014, the global lithium industry will be worth roughly $1 billion. The lithium battery industry will be worth $25 billion."

Read the original article in Spanish

Photo - Gio Iab

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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