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Indigenous Argentineans Resist Becoming “Sacrifice Zone” for Ecocolonialism

The Global North’s demand for lithium threatens a new chapter of colonial dispossession.

Salt pools in the Salinas Grandes Basin.

Salinas Grandes-Laguna de Guayatayoc is a region located in the province of Jujuy, in the north of Argentina. The 33 Indigenous communities that live around the area belong to the Kolla and Lickan Antay (Atacama) Indigenous people. These territories are high-altitude lakes of salt and minerals that form a closed basin often surrounded by volcanoes and mountains, which communities consider sacred protectors. The Kolla and Lickan Antay (Atacama) people have been living in the area from time immemorial, harvesting salt, planting quinoa, raising camelids like llamas, and most recently making a living off their small entrepreneurial tourist and craft businesses.

However, if it was not for the fact that Salinas Grandes possesses vast reserves of lithium and other minerals, Western audiences would probably not have ever heard of these territories. Lithium is an essential component of the batteries that power our laptops, cellphones, and increasingly our electric and hybrid cars. Around 60 percent of the world reserves of lithium are located in an area that extends across the borders of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The mining industry has dubbed this area, rather uncannily, “The Saudi Arabia of Lithium.”

As the world reserves of oil and natural gas approach finitude and the effects of climate change become more palpable, the demand for lithium-ion batteries has grown exponentially. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, global lithium production went from 34,000 metric tons in 2012 to 100,000 metric tons in 2021. In other words, the “solution” to global warming in the Global North comes down to electrifying the economy, in general, and switching our current gas vehicles for electric cars. Although there is no doubt that we need to decarbonize the economy and end our oil dependence as soon as we can, the proposed solution risks repeating and intensifying the old colonial dynamics of extraction and dispossession that have defined Latin American economies from 1492 onwards.

Since 2016, I have been collecting testimonials from members of the 33 communities that surround the Salinas Grandes basin in the context of a digital humanities project named The Transandean Lithium Project. One of the most striking characteristics of these testimonials lies in the fact that the members of these communities consider the salt lake — or as they call it, the “salar” — a living being. For Veronica Chávez, a member of the community of Santuario de Tres Pozos, the salar is not just an amorphous mass of water, salt and minerals, but rather a member of her own family. For this reason, when the mining companies began drilling the salt crust, and she saw all the dirt and the “broken veins of water,” she experienced pain in her body.

Because lithium mining requires thousands of gallons of water to separate lithium from magnesium and other minerals through evaporation, I asked members of these communities what would happen if the sources of water were depleted, and the salt flats dried up. The prospects of such an ecological catastrophe were, without exception, unfathomable for members of these communities. Clemente Flores, a leader of the community of El Moreno, for instance, responded that it would be difficult for me to understand. And then he added that it would be the equivalent of “losing a limb or the head.”

As is evident in these quotes, the Kolla people do not see themselves above the salar, but rather on equal footing with it. In fact, they see their territory as a textile in which they are only a thread along with animals, plants, the salt flats, the mountains and volcanoes. In 2015, confronted with the threat of lithium mining in their territory, they put together a document titled “Kachi Yupi” (traces of salt in Quechua). In addition to describing their ancestral relation to the salt and the salar in the document, they demanded national and provincial authorities to respect Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and Article 75, Section 17 of the Argentinean Constitution. These two laws grant the communities the right of a free, informed and previous consultation before authorizing any activities, including lithium mining, in their territory. It is worth noting that Argentina is a signatory of Convention 169 of the ILO, and, since 2018, the South American nation is also a signatory of the Escazu Agreement, which grants special protections to the environment and environmental defenders such as these Indigenous communities in Latin America.

Despite all these protections and the will of the communities to defend their territory, the pressure to authorize lithium mining in the territory of Salinas Grandes has not ceased over the past decade. In the case of Argentina, a federal nation at least formally, these authorizations depend on the provincial governments. Gerardo Morales, the governor of the province of Jujuy since 2015, has been an open supporter of public-private partnerships to exploit lithium and other minerals in Jujuy. According to a group of leading researchers at the University of Buenos Aires, these public-private partnerships, far from being an achievement for Argentina, “will be the clear confirmation of the over-exploitation of its nature, of outsourcing of earnings while an ‘infertile surplus’ is seen to go by, [and] the condemnation to an unequal exchange within the framework of green colonialism.”

Yet, Governor Morales is doubling down on this project to exploit lithium in Jujuy against the will of the Indigenous communities and the advice of at least one sector of the scientific community. On October 11, the general secretary of Jujuy called for a virtual public consultation (decree 5772-P-2010) to comment on an open bid that closed on November 28, to authorize lithium mining partnerships between JEMSE (a public company owned by the province of Jujuy), and private mining companies interested in exploiting lithium in Salinas Grandes and other territories.

The virtual public consultation clearly violates all the laws and agreements signed by Argentina in the last decade. To begin with, the open consultation was only open for public comment for 20 days (October 11-31). To add insult to injury, the comments could be made only virtually, and the documentation could only be consulted online. This is not a coincidence. Governor Morales knows all too well that most of the communities in the Salinas Grandes basin do not have high-speed internet connections, or internet connection at all, to participate in the comment sessions or to consult the documentation on time to do so. In addition, the comments in the virtual sessions are non-binding and the studies of ecological impact will be commissioned by the mining companies themselves. Later, the companies need to present the results of their studies of ecological impact in front of the Provincial Unit of Mining Environmental Management (UGAMP). This unit is mostly integrated by state and provincial authorities with a record of favoring the interests of mining companies. Indigenous communities have only a limited role in the process. No one outside the authorized members of the UGAMP can comment or participate in the vetting process. The consultation, in short, is rigged in favor of the mining companies and the plans of the criollo elite.

On November 19, a lawyer representing the Indigenous communities of Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc presented an appeal of legal protection in the regional court of Jujuy. On December 1, there was a public hearing in said court. Accompanied by their lawyers, three members of the Indigenous communities presented arguments against lithium mining in their territories. However, the province of Jujuy has already granted lithium permits to three companies. The names of these companies are in a sealed envelope that will be opened on December 12. In other words, the decision has already been made, and the legal process seems to be only a façade to protect the economic extractive model that feeds the energy transition in the north.

Members of the Indigenous communities of Salinas Grandes block the route between Argentina and Chile to protest lithium extraction in 2018.
Members of the Indigenous communities of Salinas Grandes block the route between Argentina and Chile to protest lithium extraction in 2018.

Some in the U.S. believe that we can resolve the climate crisis by buying Teslas and installing solar panels on the roofs of our houses. Unfortunately, things are more complicated. In fact, the energy transition narrative in the U.S., Canada and the European Union purposefully underestimates our new dependencies on lithium, rare minerals, copper, cobalt, and other materials that are mostly located in places like Salinas Grandes, Argentina. It is a fantasy to believe that the transition to a green economy could happen without renouncing our exorbitant rates of energy consumption. Failing to do so will make us complicitous of human rights abuses and ecological destruction in the Global South, and soon enough, also in poor communities of color here, for lithium extraction is already set to occur in Indigenous lands in Nevada and in the Salton Sea in California.

Testimony of Alicia Gabriela Alba from Lipán, Salinas Grandes, addressing the impacts of lithium extraction in her community. Courtesy of Luis Martín-Cabrera via the Transandean Lithium Project

One thing is clear, though: The Indigenous communities of Salinas Grandes should not pay the price to resolve a problem they have not created. When I first interviewed members of these communities, I thought that the exhaustion of water sources in their territories would amount to a cultural genocide. Yet, the more I listened to their testimonials, the more I became convinced that the consequences are far deeper and more disturbing for them. Because the Western distinction between culture and nature is inoperative for these communities, the transformation of their lands into a “zone of sacrifice” will amount to a “terricidio” (earthcide), the end of a way of knowing the land/nature (epistemicide), the end of an ethnic group (genocide) and the end of an ecosystem (ecocide).

In short, because the demand for lithium originates here in the overdeveloped societies of the Global North, we have an ethical obligation to avoid being part, once again, of a new chapter of colonial dispossession, one that comes wrapped around the feathers of the new green economy — ecocolonialism — but that may after all have the same pernicious effects on Indigenous communities like the ones in Salinas Grandes.

If you want to sign a petition in support of the indigenous people of Salinas Grandes Laguna de Guayatayoc click here.

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