‘White gold’ lithium boom powers electric cars – but threatens people’s water and livelihoods

For the past 50 years, Raúl and his family have worked in agriculture in Peine, a small community in the middle of Chile’s Atacama Desert. “I enjoy agriculture. This is my life”, he says, as he waters his produce from a narrow stream. Raúl proudly displays the plum tomatoes, towering corn, and hearty beets he grows, and then sells at the local store.

 

 

But in this water-scarce region, Raúl’s goods have an unusual competitor for water: lithium, a key mineral for the world economy which threatens to leave communities without the vital water resources they need to survive. (Image left: A woman in Peine, Chile, carries her laundry from a small water reserve.) 

The so-called “lithium triangle” – an area spanning Chile, Bolivia and Argentina – holds around 60 percent of the world’s lithium reserves. Demand for lithium, which is used for electric car batteries and storing renewable energy, is projected to increase tenfold over the next decade, leading all three countries to double down on being world leaders in this “white gold.”

Chile is already leading the pack, with the second largest production of lithium worldwide in 2018 after Australia, and the Chilean Government taking steps to become number one. Argentina has the world’s largest lithium reserves, with two active production sites and over 60 projects under development. The second largest reserves are in the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, which President Evo Morales hopes to tap in his ambitious plans for lithium extraction and producing batteries.

‘Water is life’

This lithium boom is having an impact on a dozen mostly indigenous communities like Raúl’s home in Peine, Chile. Across the border in Argentina, Martina and Juan from San Jose de Miraflores worry about how lithium extraction in the Salinas Grandes salt flats (image below) and the Guayantayoc lagoon will affect their livelihoods. “I have 200 llamas”, says Juan, “not much compared to others, [but] selling the products we make from llamas is our livelihood”.

Martina says the 24 families in their community sell llama meat, textiles and crafts made from llama wool. But she fears that lithium extraction will swallow up the water their animals need to survive. “Water is life”, she says. In other communities, indigenous people live from artisanal salt harvesting, and from producing food such as peas and potatoes – all of which require water.

Water is an essential part of lithium extraction in the triangle, allowing it to be sourced through a process which is significantly cheaper than hard rock mining. The lithium is contained in salt water brines beneath salt flats in the three countries. This brine is extracted with pumps and directed into large pools, where the water evaporates, leaving a mixture of lithium and other minerals. These are separated using a chemical process, and then sent off and used to make batteries, among other uses.   

The impact is already being felt. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, where lithium extraction has been underway for longer, communities are experiencing water shortages affecting their home lives and agriculture. The world’s driest desert, Atacama has not escaped the impact of climate change. But this has been made worse by water-reliant industries’ actions in the region, including lithium extraction. Chemical companies Albermarle and SQM have both been accused of extracting more than their legal quota of salt water. Tourism and copper mining has also put pressure on these scarce water resources.

To sweeten the pill, mining companies have made agreements with communities which include financial benefits, jobs, and other contributions, such as building or repairing schools and providing scholarships. While some residents are happy with these agreements, others question what will happen after the boom, especially since many of these provisions replace what used to be state services.

“We are not against lithium – we just want our voices to be heard”, says one of the community leaders in Argentina’s Salinas Grandes. “We are fighting for the next generation.”

In both Chile and Argentina, there are strong civil society movements challenging this trend and advocating for the rights of indigenous people. These include the right to self-determination, the right to free, prior and informed consent, and rights to water and land in line with their cultural traditions. For example, in June 2018 the Council of the Atacameños Peoples (Consejo de los Pueblos Atacameños) brought a legal complaint against the lack of free, prior and informed consent in the government’s extension of lithium company contracts. Similarly, a group organising 33 communities in Salinas Grandes has brought cases at both a national and international level over state and company failures to respect this right to consent.

However, despite these pending cases, companies in Argentina continue to announce explorations without consulting local communities. In February the Salinas Grandes community set up road blockades to make their voices heard.

While the primary duty to protect these human rights rests on these countries’ governments, companies also have a responsibility to respect human rights under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

However, out of the world’s top five lithium producers, currently only one has a human rights policy in place. All five have had allegations of human rights abuse made against them. This trend is similar across companies extracting other minerals needed for electric vehicles and renewable energy. Out of the top 25 companies mining copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese, zinc and lithium, 16 companies (64 per cent) have publicly available human rights policies. Of these, 22 companies (88 per cent) have had allegations of human rights abuse made against them, including allegations of child labour in cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This indicates not only a discrepancy between policy and practice, but also a need to adopt strong human rights due diligence processes, as per the UN Guiding Principles, to ensure respect for human rights in the transition to a low-carbon economy. Lithium is seen as one of the cornerstones of this transition. But in its current form of production, it risks creating inequalities and abuses similar to those of the fossil fuel industry and traditional mining.

A new Amnesty International campaign, launched on March 21st, challenges car companies to create the world’s first ethical battery in the next five years. It also calls on companies to strengthen their human rights practices and engage with both suppliers and governments in lithium-producing countries. As Amnesty’s Secretary General, Kumi Naidoo, said: “We need to change course now, or those least responsible for climate change – indigenous communities and children – will pay the price for the shift away from fossil fuels.”

Solar, wind and renewable energy companies that need lithium for energy storage also have an opportunity to meet this challenge. Energy companies must put indigenous communities and workers at the heart of their operations to ensure that the transition to a low-carbon economy is not only fast, but fair.

Names in this piece have been changed to protect interviewees.

 

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Eniko Horvath and Amanda Romero Medina are Senior Researchers at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. https://www.business-humanrights.org/

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