Taroa Zúñiga Silva

How lithium mines enrich billionaires and devastate communities | Opinion

The Atacama salt flat in northern Chile, which stretches 1,200 square miles, is the largest source of lithium in the world. We are standing on a bluff, looking over la gran fosa, the great pit that sits at the southern end of the flat, which is shielded from public view. It is where the major Chilean corporations have set up shop to extract lithium and export it—largely unprocessed—into the global market. “Do you know whose son-in-law is the lithium king of Chile?” asks Loreto, who took us to the salt flat to view these white sands from a vantage point. His response is not so shocking; it is Julio Ponce Lerou, who is the largest stakeholder in the lithium mining company Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM) and the former son-in-law of the late military dictator Augusto Pinochet (who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990).

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

SQM and Albemarle, the two major Chilean mining companies, dominate the Atacama salt flat. It is impossible to get a permit to visit the southern end of the flats, where the large corporations have set up their operations. The companies extract the lithium by pumping brine from beneath the salt flat and then letting it evaporate for months before carrying out the extraction. “SQM steals our water to extract lithium,” said the former president of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Atacameño, Ana Ramos, in 2018, according to Deutsche Welle. The concentrate left behind after evaporation is turned into lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide, which are then exported, and form key raw materials used in the production of lithium-ion batteries. About a third of the world’s lithium comes from Chile. According to Goldman Sachs, “lithium is the new gasoline.”

What Necessity Does

Ownership over the salt flat is contested among the state, Chile’s Indigenous communities, and private entities. But, as one member of the Lickanantay community—the Indigenous people who call the Atacama salt flat their home—told us, most of the owners of the land do not live in the area any longer. Juan, who raises horses and whose family were herders, tells us that people “live off the rents from the land. They do not care what happens to the area.” However, Juan knows that these rents are minuscule. “What they pay us as they mine our land is practically a tip,” he says. “It is nothing compared to what they earn. But it is still a lot of money.” For most Lickanantay people, Juan says, “lithium is not an issue because although it is known to damage the environment, it is providing [us with] money.” “Necessity drives people to do a lot of things,” he adds.

The negative environmental impacts of mining lithium have been widely studied by scientists and observed by tourist guides in Chile. Angelo, a guide, tells us that he worries about the water supplies getting polluted due to mining activities and the impact it has on the Atacama Desert animals, including the pink flamingos. “Every once in a while, we see a dead pink flamingo,” he says. Cristina Inés Dorador, who participated in writing Chile’s new proposed constitution, is a scientist with a PhD in natural sciences who has published about the decline of the pink flamingo population in the salt flat. However, Dorador has also said that new technologies could be used to prevent the widespread negative environmental impact. Ingrid Garcés Millas, who has a PhD in earth sciences from the University of Zaragoza and is a researcher at the University of Antofagasta, pointed out that the currently used of lithium extraction has led to the deterioration of the “ways of life of [the] Andean peoples” in an article for Le Monde Diplomatique. An example she provided was that while the underground water supply is used by the lithium industry, the “communities are supplied [with water] by cistern trucks.”

According to a report by MiningWatch Canada and the Environmental Justice Atlas, “to produce one ton of lithium in the salt flats in Atacama (Chile), 2,000 tons of water are evaporated, causing significant harm to both the availability of water and the quality of underground fresh water reserves.”

Meanwhile, there is no pressing debate in the Atacama region over the extraction of lithium. Most people seem to have accepted that lithium mining is here to stay. Among the activists, there are disagreements over how to approach the question of lithium. More radical activists believe that lithium should not be extracted, while others debate about who should benefit from the wealth generated by the mining of lithium. Still others, such as Angelo and Loreto, believe that Chile’s willingness to export the unprocessed lithium denies the country the possibility of exploring the benefits that might come from processing the metal within the country.

Natural Commons

Before the presidential election in Chile in November 2021, we went to see Giorgio Jackson, now one of the closest advisers to Chile’s President Gabriel Boric. He told us then that Chile’s new government would look at the possibility of the nationalization of key resources, such as copper and lithium. This no longer seems to be on the government’s agenda, despite the expectation that the high prices for copper and lithium would pay for the much-needed pension reforms and the modernization of the country’s infrastructure.

The idea of nationalization was floated around the constitutional convention but did not find its way into the text of the proposed constitution, which will be put to vote on September 4. Instead, the proposed constitution builds on Article 19 of the 1980 constitution, which provides for “the right to live in an environment free from contamination.” The new constitution is expected to lay out the natural commons under which the state “has a special duty of custody, in order to ensure the rights of nature and the interest of present and future generations.”

In the waning days of the government of former President Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s Mining Ministry awarded two companies—BYD Chile SpA and Servicios y Operaciones Mineras del Norte S.A.—extraction rights for 80,000 tons of lithium each for 20 years. An appeals court in Copiapó heard a petition from the governor of Copiapó, Miguel Vargas, and from various Indigenous communities. In January 2022, the court suspended the deal; that suspension was upheld in June by the Supreme Court. This does not imply that Chile will roll back the exploitation of lithium by the major corporations, but it does suggest that a new appetite is developing against the widespread exploitation of natural resources in the country.

Until 2016, Chile produced 37 percent of the global market share of lithium, making the country the world’s largest producer of the metal. When Chile’s government increased royalty rates on the miners, several of them curtailed production and some increased their stake in Argentina (SQM, for instance, entered a joint venture with Lithium Americas Corporation to work on a project in Argentina). Chile is behind Australia in terms of lithium production in the world market presently, falling from 37 percent in 2016 to 29 percent in 2019 (with an expectation that Chile’s share will fall further to 17 percent by 2030).

Juan’s observation that “necessity drives people to do a lot of things” captures the mood among the Atacameños. The needs of the people of the region seem to only come after the needs of the large corporations. Relatives of the old dictators accumulate wealth off of the land, while the owners of the land—out of necessity—sell their land for a propina, a tip.

Author Bio: Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.

Taroa Zúñiga Silva is a writing fellow and the Spanish media coordinator for Globetrotter. She is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020). She is a member of the coordinating committee of Argos: International Observatory on Migration and Human Rights and is a member of the Mecha Cooperativa, a project of the Ejército Comunicacional de Liberación.

Colombia needs democracy: an interview with María José Pizarro

On May 29, 2022, a political earthquake struck Colombia: the left-leaning Historical Pact’s presidential candidate, Gustavo Petro, and vice-presidential candidate, Francia Márquez, won the first round of the presidential elections after getting 40.33 percent of the votes. The blocs representing the far-right and right-wing parties—which have dominated Colombian politics for most of its history—trailed far behind. The choice of name for the bloc representing the left—Historical Pact—was chosen with the intention of reflecting the unique nature of this moment in the country’s history.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Petro and Márquez will now enter a second round of voting against the far-right ticket of Rodolfo Hernández and Marelen Castillo on June 19. Opinion polls suggest it will be a close race between the two tickets, although there are fears that the right wing will interfere, possibly with violence, to prevent a left-wing victory in Colombia.

The last few times that the left came near the Palacio de Nariño, where the president works and lives, violent outbreaks during the election process put that possibility to rest.

A cycle of right-wing rule was initiated after the assassination of the left-wing politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who was killed in 1948 and whose death began a period of Colombia’s history hauntingly known as “La Violencia” (“the violence”).

The second opportunity for the emergence of the left came in 1990-1991, when the left-wing guerrillas put down their guns and entered the political contest in good faith, but right-wing forces assassinated three popular presidential candidates, which included the liberal candidate Luis Carlos Galán and two left candidates, Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa and Carlos Pizarro Leongómez.

Petro and Márquez’s Historical Pact offers the third opportunity for a left-wing wave, which will help set aside the violent agenda that has so far been supported by the country’s elite.

Can Colombia Breathe?

María José Pizarro is the daughter of the slain politician Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, who was assassinated in 1990. She was only 12 years old when her father was shot to death on an airplane from Bogotá to Barranquilla. Pizarro’s parents—Leongómez and Myriam Rodríguez—were members of the guerrilla group M19. In his youth, presidential candidate Gustavo Petro was also a member of M19; he was arrested in 1985 (at the age of 25) and sentenced to 18 months in prison for possession of guns. Pizarro went into exile in Spain when her father was killed, and then returned in 2002. She is now a member of the Chamber of Representatives, for which she ran on the Historical Pact platform.

When we asked Pizarro about Colombia’s liberal constitution of 1991, she said, “The first 19 articles of the Colombian Constitution establish the social rule of law and the democratic parameters and freedoms in our country.” “What we require,” she said, “is not only that the 1991 constitution be complied with, but also that those who have held power for the last 200 years be willing to allow other political sectors to govern Colombia. That is called plain and simple democracy.”

Before the first round of voting took place on May 29, the mayor of Medellín, Daniel Quintero—a popular independent mayor of Colombia’s second-largest city—tweeted on May 9, hinting at his support for the Petro-Márquez candidacy with the hashtag “ElCambioEnPrimera,” which is associated with their campaign. He was suspended on May 10 by the Colombian Inspector General’s Office for his alleged interference in the election. By Colombian law, elected officials are not permitted to participate in politics. Quintero responded on Twitter, saying, “The coup d’état has begun in Colombia.”

Pizzaro told us that the suspension of Quintero shows disregard for a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, under which this prohibition would be considered unjust. Colombia, she said, “is the only country where officials—who are politicians, elected by a popular vote—cannot express themselves politically.” Reflecting on the suspension of Quintero, Pizzaro said that the country needs “political reform that [involves] changing the rules of the game to allow or at least to avoid the whole series of situations that arise [as a result of] these obsolete outcomes.” Colombia, she said, “needs a new way of doing politics for the new generation.”

No More Armed Struggle

Pizzaro grew up with her parents in the armed struggle. She has watched her country be torn to bits by the elite, who were unwilling to adopt even the most basic liberal principles, and by a state quick to respond with violence if the elite felt threatened. “Colombia,” she told us, “deserves a path to peace.” In 2016, after a difficult period of negotiations, sections of the armed left and the state agreed to a peace process. The agreement—ratified by the elected officials—led to the disarmament of the revolutionary group FARC (Common Alternative Revolutionary Force) and its conversion into a political party called Comunes (which is a coalition partner of the Historical Pact).

Fighters who abandoned the armed struggle have had a hard time reintegrating into Colombia’s social and political life. This is a worry for Pizzaro. “We have to reintegrate in a peaceful way all people who had [earlier] taken the decision of the armed road,” she said. “We have to generate social conditions so that no Colombian ever has to opt for the armed way to transform the political and social life of the country.” The path to this transformation must be through democratic possibilities, she said.

Petro comes to this race as the former mayor of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. His running mate—Francia Márquez—represents the transformations that Pizzaro described to us. An Afro-Colombian woman, Márquez worked as a domestic worker to pay for her studies and built her reputation as a defender of the poor against mining and electricity companies. Her bravery is legendary, as was demonstrated when, while she was on stage at an Afro-Colombian Day rally in May, her adversaries pointed a laser at her, and she continued to speak and remained undaunted by the fact that the laser could have represented the threat of a sniper weapon. Márquez’s candidacy represents evidence that the new hoped-for politics Pizarro spoke of has arrived in Colombia.

The journalist and politician Mábel Lara wrote a public letter to support the Historical Pact—even though she has a different political ideology. In her letter, she wrote, “I was born and grew up in Cauca, a region like all the regions of Colombia: forgotten by the political leadership and the political class that has been elected for decades and has not listened to us. I have received a call from a Black woman from the region who, like me, has fought democratically at the polls and has invited me to accompany her. I accept the call of my friend Francia Márquez at this important moment in history.” Pizarro concurred.

Author Bio: Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

Taroa Zúñiga Silva is a writing fellow and the Spanish media coordinator for Globetrotter. She is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020). She is a member of the coordinating committee of Argos: International Observatory on Migration and Human Rights and is a member of the Mecha Cooperativa, a project of the Ejército Comunicacional de Liberación.

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