NewsHow has the exploitation of lithium been in Latin...

How has the exploitation of lithium been in Latin America?

The immense puzzle of turquoise pools contrasts with a salt desert that seems infinite, a recurring landscape on the borders of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, where the “lithium triangle” brings together hope, fear and disappointment.

This arid triple frontier of South America stores in underground brine deposits 56% of the world’s identified resources of the coveted metal that gives life to cell phones, computers and automobiles.

The so-called “white gold” or “21st century oil” has seen its price skyrocket from $5,700 a ton in November 2020 to $60,500 last September thanks to the boom in electric vehicles, as the world seeks to move away from fossil fuels to curb global warming.

But the dark side of lithium is that each plant consumes millions of liters of water per day and farming communities in this drought-stricken corner of South America fear for their livelihoods.

“The best salt”

The lithium route begins in the north of Chile. From the Atacama salt flat, a brown and rocky plain that you can barely walk on, 26% of the world’s production came out in 2021, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

The figure was only surpassed by Australia, with 55%, but extracted from rocks.

In the Atacama, trucks weave between pools where brine, a mix of water and salts, slowly evaporates before being taken to a chemical plant to separate the lithium from the liquid.

“It is, by far, the best salt flat in the world,” Juan Carlos Guajardo, director of the Plusmining consultancy, told AFP.

Chile, where lithium has been extracted since 1984, does so faster than its neighbors because low rainfall and extreme solar radiation accelerate evaporation.

But its laws make it difficult to grant exploitation concessions since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) declared it of “nuclear interest” for its use in the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

The rights are in the hands of the American Albemarle and the Chilean SQM, which pay royalties of up to 40% of sales, in addition to millionaire figures to surrounding communities.

In the first half of this year alone, tax collection for lithium exceeded that for copper, popularly known as “Chile’s salary.”

Faced with such a boom, leftist President Gabriel Boric promised to create a national lithium company, but without excluding private participation.

dead flamingos

Despite the agreements reached with the Atacameño peoples, some continue to see lithium as a threat.

This year, a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B associated lithium mining with a drop in the number of flamingos in the Atacama.

“The development of technologies to curb climate change has been identified as a global imperative. However, these ‘green’ technologies can have a negative impact on biodiversity,” says the study.

In 2013, an inspection of SQM confirmed the death of a third of the carob trees on the property. The probable cause, according to a later study, was the lack of water.

The company reported using about 400,000 liters per hour this year.

“We want to know for sure what the real impact of extracting water from the groundwater has been,” says Claudia Pérez, 49, a resident of the San Pedro River Valley and a worker in a state program to support indigenous communities. .

He is not against lithium, but demands “to minimize the negative impact on people”.

“Lithium we do not eat”

On the other side of the Andean puna, the route winds between Olaroz, Cauchari and other salt flats in the Argentine provinces of Jujuy, Salta and Catamarca, which are home to the second largest lithium deposit in the world.

With few restrictions on its exploitation and royalties of only 3%, Argentina is the fourth largest producer in the world with two mines: the American Livent has had one since the 1990s and the other, more recent, is a company from Australia, Japan and an Argentine public company. .

Dozens of projects by US, Chinese, French, South Korean and local firms mean that Argentina, in the midst of a serious economic crisis, plans to extract more lithium than Chile before 2030.

According to Roberto Salvarezza, president of the state-owned YPF-Litio and YPF-Tec, production would increase fivefold by 2025.

The governor of Jujuy, Gerardo Morales, even invited in April via Twitter the leader of the electromobility giant Tesla, the American tycoon Elon Musk, to invest in the province when he complained about the high price of lithium.

But in Salinas Grandes, a desert between Salta and Jujuy, visitors come across a sign that says: “No to lithium, yes to water and life.” In 2019, its residents expelled two miners who wanted to settle in the area.

“It is not, as they say, that they are going to save the planet… We have to give our lives to save the planet,” says Verónica Chávez, president of the Tres Pozos Sanctuary Kolla indigenous community, next to Salinas Grandes.

“We don’t eat lithium, we don’t eat batteries either. We do drink water,” adds Chavez, 48, standing in front of mountains of salt extracted by a local cooperative.

A few meters away, Bárbara Quipildor, 47, assembles empanadas in a small construction made of salt.

“I want them to leave us alone, in peace. I don’t want lithium, beyond the fact that I know there is a lot of money,” he says. “The future of my children’s children is the concern.”

Lithium Hotel

About 300 km north of Jujuy, the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia holds more lithium than any other: a quarter of the identified resources on Earth, according to the USGS.

It is in Potosí, a region rich in silver and tin that for centuries moved the economy of the Spanish empire. But today, more than half of Potosinos are poor.

At the beginning of his term, former leftist president Evo Morales (2006-2019) nationalized hydrocarbons and other resources, including lithium.

“Bolivia is going to set the price for the whole world,” Morales went on to say, calling on the rest of the region to follow his example and that of Mexico, where lithium was nationalized in April.

His words brought hope to Río Grande, a small town on dirt roads near the state-owned Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB) plant.

Full of optimism, Donny Ali built his Hotel Lithium there. But prosperity has not arrived and Bolivia still does not produce the metal on an industrial scale.

“Our communities are forgotten. We expected a great industrial technological development and, above all, better living conditions. That has not come,” lamented Ali, a 34-year-old lawyer, sitting on a hotel sofa without guests.

After years of stagnation, the left-wing government has opened up to private participation, but it is not known how it will be implemented because the law prohibits it.

“There are those who think that Bolivia ‘is going to miss the train’ of lithium. I think that is not going to happen,” Juan Carlos Zuleta, an economist specialized in lithium who briefly directed YLB in 2020, told AFP.

The question, instead, is “if this lithium extraction is going to benefit Bolivians.”

“The Next China”

Last year, a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington blamed “unfavorable investment climates and more challenging geographic conditions” for Argentina and Bolivia lagging behind Chile in tapping into their vast lithium resources.

Despite the differences, the three countries aim to go further and start manufacturing batteries. Argentina is closer, with a pilot state factory expected to start operations in December.

“In South America there are all the raw materials needed to produce batteries and electric vehicles,” explains Zuleta.

“This would mean a concrete possibility of turning South America into the next China,” he concludes.

Meanwhile, the Lithium hotel remains empty and the communities of the salt flats are on a war footing for water.

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