As the world moves to renewable energy, demand for lithium has surged. But the race to extract the precious mineral comes with hidden costs for local communities and the environment. So just how green is the energy transition after all?
We know that the transition to renewable energies is urgent and that fossil fuels must be replaced. But are we making the same mistake if we switch to extracting other resources using the same model?
Since 1997, U.S. company Livent has been extracting lithium, a metal that is crucial for renewable technologies, from the Salar del Hombre Muerto, a salt flat in northern Argentina.
Close by, the local community is recording the deterioration and loss of biodiversity of this sensitive and unique wetland area.
The lithium triangle
At the Antofagasta de la Sierra, in the Catamarca region of Argentina
Alfredo Morales and Román Guitián belong to the Atacameño indigenous people who live in Antofagasta de la Sierra de Catamarca. It's a large territory located in the north of Argentina, inhabited by more than 1,800 people. The entrance for the extraction of lithium was created there. Lithium is a light metal that has become crucial in recent years for its use in various types of batteries for electronic devices for everyday use, such as computers, tablets and cell phones. It is also a strategic element for the manufacture of electric cars and new technologies.
Now that they are interested in what there is here, they want to take us out.
Located 4,000 meters above sea level, the salt-flat was named by the great-grandfather of Cacique Román Guitián after finding bone remains in that area. But it was not an uninhabited territory waiting to be discovered: its inhabitants descend from the Atacama indigenous communities and embody their history in the present. Today, the silence has been replaced by the noise of the machines and trucks that explore the territory in search of the precious mineral.
Roman recalls that, before the arrival of mining, "life was healthier." And he reflects: “Today we cannot live as before because we have been left without water, we cannot circulate freely and our animals die. Before this company came we lived without any problem. Now we have all been contaminated”.
Alfredo says that for a long time, that territory was inhabited only by his community: "For many years, we lived on the edge of the country preserving the nation, and now that they are interested in what there is here, they want to take us out." In the area of the Andean mountain range and salt flats, what they call "nation" is more complex to define. There, the Argentine Puna constitutes a larger territory together with parts of Chile and Bolivia. Over the last few years, it's become known as the lithium triangle, an area coveted by large corporations because has more than 65% of the world's lithium reserves concentrated in three countries.
One energy matrix to another
This mineral is presented as a salvation in the face of the climate crisis caused by the burning of fossil fuels. As a result, oil is losing the privileged place it held during the 20th century. Lithium could certainly be recycled and recovered from batteries that are already in circulation, which is why it is presented as renewable within the framework of the energy transition process. However, at the moment, it is only extracted from vein deposits or by the evaporation of brine deposits and large-scale reuse processes are unknown.
We have been left without water, we cannot circulate freely and our animals die.
The energy transition is a process that consists of changing the current energy matrix (mainly based on fossil fuels) towards a diversified system of renewable sources. In this way, it seeks to prevent the planet's temperature from increasing and the effects of the climate crisis from worsening. But that definition is not enough because it is necessary to promote a fair and comprehensive transition. That means an energy transformation that takes into account, for example, territorial, socioeconomic and gender concerns in decision-making. In short, it must consider social and environmental justice.
Although lithium is presented as a key element for "clean energy", the current extraction model implies an over-consumption of water sources, the use of polluting chemicals and the displacement of communities. Is it possible to save the planet from climate change by the mere transition from one energy matrix to another? Does the extraction and use of this "new" mineral contemplate the errors of the outgoing hydrocarbon model? Does the transition necessarily imply the sacrifice of biodiversity, people and territories?
A lithium goldrush
During the last 15 years, the province of Catamarca in northwestern Argentina has occupied a central place in the global mining map. The oldest lithium extraction project in the country operates there, run by the company Livent, which describes itself as making "high-performance lithium products and solutions." In 2018, the company submitted an Environmental Impact Report for the expansion of the “Fénix” Project with the aim of obtaining groundwater from the Los Patos River sub-basin in the Antofagasta area.
Despite the name change, this company has been extracting since 1997 in the Salar del Hombre Muerto in such a way that, far from being a novelty, it has had multiple impacts on the local territory and the communities there. However, since 2016, this model has gone into overdrive: “Lithium fever”, in the words of biologist Patricia Marconi, a member of the Yuchan Foundation and the High Andean Flamingo Conservation Group. In 2021, the German automaker BMW partnered with Livent and announced its investment of $338 million.
This “lithium rush” is not random. It is directly related to the process of elimination of one of the export taxes in February 2016, during the government of former Argentine President Mauricio Macri. Then Argentina was positively favored by foreign companies. The following year, the National Ministry of Energy and Mining recorded in its report at least "42 projects in brine deposits (salares) and five more in pegmatite deposits (rocks)". Since then, both the national government and the provincial and local governments have accompanied the deployment of international mining projects in the country with public policies.
A way of life under threat
Argentina´s Salar del Hombre Muerto lithium mining by brine well water evaporation.Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE/Flickr
The Andean salt flats are true vestiges of ancient lakes (paleolakes) that existed thousands of years ago in the area, so they are irrecoverable common goods from the past. But not only that, they are also a present way of life. Biologist Marconi explains that it is necessary to understand the salt flats as high-altitude wetlands that conserve water both on the surface and in the subterranean, since 98% of the water in the highlands is conserved in this way. The salt flats are true oases of life for the biodiversity, where various species of flamingos, trout, ducks, vicuñas, among others, develop and coexist. Today they are all in danger.
"Without water, there is no life," Cacique (indigenous leader) Guitián says over and over again. And he never tires of repeating it. In recent years, together with his community, he has denounced the death of both domestic and wild animals and the negative change in the vegetation and the landscape. He has also called attention to the effects on the area of drought and the noise of the machines. If the planned projects and investments go ahead, the Andean wetlands could disappear.
Marconi explains that lithium mining "takes extraordinary amounts of water”. When they begin to extract, according to what they've declared, they will use in 14 days the amount of freshwater the population of Antofagasta de la Sierra consumes in a year. This is, says the researcher, according to what they themselves declare in the environmental impact study.
Transition for those with money
Although Livent has been in the territory for more than 25 years, there are no visible benefits for the community: "What they say is that they are going to generate a lot of resources and work opportunities, but we only see deterioration," explains Guitián. In a territory deprived of access to basic rights such as health, education and work, his colleague Alfredo maintains that the only policy of the municipal state, in coordination with the mining company, is the granting of economic "scholarships" for the youngest in the community. However, he denounces that as just buying silence.
Those who question or oppose mining projects are threatened. Morales says that since 2016, the violence has escalated: "They came to hit us and put together a case saying that we are against police personnel when the violence was the other way around."
Who is the transition intended for? For those who have money.
Guitián explains that, faced with this situation, the community initiated a legal process: "We filled an appeal for protection, which reached the National Government, then we initiated a precautionary measure, but they did not respond to us as if the laws did not exist."
In the face of the government's silence, the communities advance with dialogues and the construction of networks, and faced with the Regional Seminar on Lithium, explains Guitián, "we are going to do the same thing they do. We are going to get together with communities from other provinces and countries."
While officials and businessmen make toasts on the millionaire investments left by lithium and talk about energy transition, the voices of local communities make them uncomfortable: “Who is going to have those high-end vehicles? Who is the transition intended for? For those who have money. We don't have that money, that's why they don't care about our voices."
*This text was produced with the support of Climate Tracker Latin America.