After the (White) Gold Rush
The global push for electric vehicles could have devastating consequences for Argentina’s Indigenous communities, Amelia Rayno reports.
Under the searing sun of the Argentine Puna, or high desert plateau, Eufemio Alancay raises a pickax and slices into the upper crust of the Salinas Grandes salt flat. Beneath, in a freshly exposed pool, is the “white gold” of his ancestors: salt.
Alancay lifts a shovelful, the saturated crystals gleaming like heavy snow. The abundant commodity, hand-washed atop this eighty-square-mile porcelain-like desert, will later be bagged and sold around the region.
It’s not high-income labor, he says, but “it’s our identity. We work in harmony with nature; we never take more than [nature] can reproduce. And we always have at least enough to live, to eat, and to survive.”
This salt flat in the Jujuy province of northern Argentina, some 13,000 feet above sea level, has for thousands of years been the heartbeat of the Indigenous Kolla and Atacama communities that surround it, its rhythm still setting the pace amid an unforgiving terrain where cellphone service is a rumor and llamas run free. It now yields jobs in salt extraction, artisanal crafts made from salt, and tourism. Its extensive veins feed freshwater aquifers that are critical for humans and livestock, and for growing crops. It’s a sacred place, according to traditional beliefs, inspiring ceremonies of prayer and gratitude.
Resting on the handle of his shovel, Alancay looks out into the luminous expanse. “We are totally invested in the salina,” he says. “Without it, we’re nothing. For those of us who live here, it truly is life.”
That life, once barely registering beyond the blue-tinted mountains that contain it, is suddenly at risk, with the communities’ survival pitted against that of the world as efforts to transition away from fossil fuels have spurred the pursuit of a “white gold” that lies beneath the salt flat’s surface. Lithium, a soft, white mineral that is abundant within the brine, is a key component in electric vehicle (EV) batteries. It has been called the single most critical element in the energy revolution.
According to a study by progressive think tank Climate and Community Project and the University of California, Davis, if today’s demand for EVs is projected to 2050, U.S. requirements alone would account for more than three times the lithium currently produced for the entire global market. U.S. President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which offers subsidies for EV purchases, is expected to increase domestic consumption of lithium fourfold. Similar estimates are being projected for other highly developed nations around the globe.
This new paradigm has transformed Argentina into the fastest-growing lithium producer in the world as part of the so-called Lithium Triangle, which includes territories in Chile and Bolivia. The region, occupying the middle stretch of the Andes Mountains, holds more than half of the world’s known lithium reserves, and perhaps as much as 80 percent of the type of lithium deemed most profitable and easiest to extract.
But as car-centric nations like the United States race for access, and local governments scramble to take advantage of new cash windfalls, the Indigenous villages of northern Argentina have become the front lines of complications and conflicts related to lithium extraction.
Lithium carbonate mining, an enterprise mostly led by foreign multinationals, requires vast quantities of water in an arid, fragile ecosystem where water is already very scarce, threatening mass displacement. Meanwhile, as constitutionally protected communities resist these developments, laws are broken, protests are violently repressed, and residents say that, while outside investors and corrupt local actors enrich themselves, the people who live here are left more impoverished than ever.
“Our land has so much wealth,” Alancay’s daughter, Mari, who is involved with community organizing against lithium exploitation, tells The Progressive. “But we are losing it to those who come from the outside and fill their pockets.”
Given these factors, Bruno Fornillo, an Argentine researcher who studies natural resources and geopolitics, calls lithium production, in its current form, “contemporary neocolonial enslavement.”
From the United States’ perspective, Laura Richardson, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, gushes about this lithium-rich region often while invoking claims of U.S. national security. This suggests the United States, with just one active domestic mine located in Nevada, has its eye on lithium as one of the next major geopolitical frontiers. According to the Buenos Aires Herald, last year, the U.S. government encouraged Argentina to boost its lithium production fivefold as the United States pushes for a free-trade exception with Argentina, which is necessary to comply with the current wording of the Inflation Reduction Act.
But “this degree of plunder is exacerbating economic, environmental, social, and racial inequalities,” Fornillo says. “It recalls the continent’s darkest moments.”
While lithium is often hailed as “green energy” because it doesn’t pollute in its final stage of use, such labels mean little to the thirty-three Indigenous surrounding the Salinas Grandes-Guayatayoc basin, and others like them in northern Argentina.
“Green for whom?” asks Clemente Flores, a spokesperson for various Indigenous villages in the area. “Because we’re saying that for this to happen, communities must die.”
In the shade of thick adobe walls, Cecilia Sarapura’s sun-leathered hands glide across a collection of tejidos, or woven items—a pair of socks, a tiny stuffed llama, a chullo, or cap—all made from the wool of her llamas, which had wandered, mid-morning, to graze.
Her husband of forty-five years, Pasqual Quipildor, was busy collecting water—clear and sweet—from the couple’s sixty-five-foot well. “It still draws,” he says, scooping a cup-full from a tin pot. “We maintain it, and it gives us what we need.”
While Quipildor’s ancestors have lived in these hills for possibly thousands of years, his direct family has inhabited this exact plot of land for three generations, maintaining a lifestyle largely unchanged by the march of modernity that he and Sarapura sometimes hear about on their radio.
Quipildor’s father and grandfather built the squat, mud-packed structures that once sat at the edge of the glittering Guayatayoc Laguna when it was speckled with pink flamingos and little else. The drive over rugged terrain to the main road that leads to Salinas Grandes takes nearly an hour by car, although there are few of those here.
Like most people in the region, the couple, now in their late sixties, live off their livestock, small-scale agriculture such as potatoes and green onions, and Cecilia’s tejidos, which her daughter takes to a town about a three-hour drive away to sell.
But in recent years, El Cerrito, where time is measured by the sun’s arc and grazing schedules, has been thrust into the fire of twenty-first-century problems.
This hacienda, on the outskirts of the village of Rinconadillas, is feeling the acute impact of climate change despite not contributing to it. These days, the laguna is mostly a desert, sprinkled with water only occasionally after rains that grow more sparse each year. And now, even greater disruption could happen.
In pursuit of the mineral that will allow high-polluting societies an off-ramp without sacrificing autonomous transit, lithium companies have begun to arrive and push for mining installations. Communities like El Cerrito again stand to suffer the consequences.
“The water is already low,” Sarapura says. “It’s enough for us for now, but already the llamas are suffering.”
Two decades ago, Argentina was barely a footnote in the international lithium market, accounting for less than 2 percent of global production. Now, with three active mines and nearly forty projects under development, Argentina is on track to become the world’s third-largest exporter in the next three years.
The reasons for the rapid expansion are clear: Compared with its similarly fertile South American peers, Argentina is especially attractive to foreign investors, thanks to a unique legal framework that favors corporations.
While lithium mining in Bolivia is controlled by the state, and Chile announced last year a new strategy that requires all lithium projects to be public-private partnerships, Argentina’s mining sector is managed by the country’s provinces—the product of a pair of deregulation laws passed by the U.S.-friendly administration of Carlos Menem in the 1990s, a time when the United States controlled the only lithium production project in Argentina. In January, the U.S. firm Livent—which still manages the 1990s-era lithium mine in the Catamarca province—merged with the Australian company Allkem to create Arcadium Lithium, which is now Argentina’s largest lithium mining operator.
That legislation, which also capped royalties paid by mining companies at 3 percent (in comparison, Chilean contracts include royalties of up to 40 percent), prevents Argentina from establishing a national policy regarding lithium exploitation and enables local governors to directly negotiate with companies.
“It’s a really perverse dynamic,” says Thea Riofrancos, a political science professor at Providence College and lead author of the Climate and Community Project study on lithium production. “It becomes a race to the bottom with provinces competing with their neighbors for mining investment. And that, of course, can open the door to corruption.”
By law, local communities should still have the final say over any proposed lithium mining projects. Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, known as the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which was adopted into Argentine law in 1992, requires Indigenous communities to be consulted on the forms of resource extraction. Article seventy-five of the Argentine Constitution also recognizes community ownership of Indigenous lands.
“Green for whom? Because we’re saying that for this to happen, communities must die.” — Clemente Flores, spokesperson for various Indigenous villages
But “the legislation that recognizes Indigenous rights is simply bypassed,” says Argentine lawyer Alicia Chalabe, who represents communities in Salinas Grandes.
Organizing efforts by those communities, which have taken legal action at both national and international levels against the provincial government and various mining companies, have successfully forced out early-stage lithium projects in recent years. In 2019, an attempt by a Canadian mining company to conduct tests to explore for lithium in the Guayatayoc Laguna—not far from where Sarapura and Quilpildor live—failed after residents from the surrounding villages blocked access to the area.
Sarapura and Quilpildor, who may move more slowly today than they used to but still maintain the same fiery resistance, say they are ready to battle the mining companies again if necessary. “They can’t take away our land,” Sarapura says. “We would gather the whole community to fight.”
Last year, the provincial government in Jujuy responded to growing protests in the region by passing a highly controversial constitutional reform that locals say was intended to override pushback against lithium mining. The new law, approved without including Indigenous communities in the public debate, paves the way for forcible seizure of ancestral lands while prohibiting demonstrations, including roadblocks.
When mass demonstrations rejecting the reform erupted across the province last year, local police responded with a violent crackdown that left at least 170 people injured, some seriously. Later, a group of Indigenous activists with ties to the surrounding communities established a permanent camp at the site of the most brutal repression, outside of the town of Purmamarca.
The camp, called La Permanencia, stands as a symbol of resistance, with activists staying in rotation, cooking over a fire, and sleeping in a dorm made from tarps and other materials. Jujuy’s former governor, Gerardo Morales, later scrapped parts of the constitutional reform pertaining to blocking roadways, but other clauses related to Indigenous rights remain.
“We have the right to oppose our own extinction,” says Rafael Herrera, one of the founders of La Permanencia. “The state argues that you have to build markets, that lithium is good for trade. But the most vulnerable people, those who don’t benefit from all of this change, are the ones who always suffer from the greed of other nations and the complicity of our politicians, who end up giving us away as slaves.”
About an hour and a half west of Salinas Grandes by car, mazes of dry, brown salt are punctuated by man-made, turquoise-green pools. Here, lithium companies have already begun production, pumping salt-rich water into the manufactured ponds to evaporate, leaving an ever-drying landscape in their wake. Local residents say wildlife, such as vicuñas, the free-ranging ancestor of domesticated alpacas, are becoming more rare. Abandoned houses abutting the salt flats add to the desolate landscape.
“Every year the water is depleted a little more,” says Adela Soriano, a nearby resident who was tending to llamas in fields of dry, desert grasses. “Already several areas have none at all. If this continues, we’ll be left with nothing.”
The neighboring salt flats of Olaroz and Cauchari are home to two of Argentina’s three exporting lithium firms. On the Olaroz flat, a joint project between Arcadium Lithium and Japan’s Toyota Tsusho Corporation has been exporting lithium since 2016. The newest player, a collaboration between Canadian and Chinese firms located on the Cauchari flat, started mining last July. The Argentine state company JEMSE controls 8.5 percent of the shares of both Jujuy projects. The mining intelligence firm CRU Group estimates that eighteen other lithium mining projects should begin production in Argentina in the next four years.
These companies have been successful in their bids in large part by preying on the precariousness of the surrounding communities, locals say. In nearby Huáncar, community commission member Ema Quispe estimates that about thirty residents work as mining employees, despite hesitance about the mines’ very presence.
Unlike in Salinas Grandes, these salt flats have never been major tourism destinations, and the salt isn’t fit for human consumption, eliminating two key industries that keep their eastern neighbors afloat. Faster diminishing water reserves, meanwhile, have also put greater pressure on traditional livelihoods dependent on livestock and tejidos. The cumulative result is that many local residents are desperate, Quispe says.
“The government should be investing here but it’s not,” she adds. “It’s just us and the mining companies. Other communities say, ‘How could you allow that?’ but they don’t see the reality here.”
Still, local benefits are limited. According to 2016 data in a report coordinated by Fornillo, lithium mining accounted for less than 0.9 percent of registered private jobs in Catamarca and about 0.42 percent of such jobs in Jujuy, with two of Argentina’s three active mines in production. Additionally, some in the area report diminishing water levels and cloudy water emerging from wells. Near the U.S. lithium mine in Catamarca, a project that has already been extracting for twenty-five years, the Trapiche River has dried up.
Communities from other regions rich in lithium deposits are paying close attention.
“Even if there is work in the short term, when the lithium runs out, what happens then?” asks Jaime Tolova, a young tour guide in Salinas Grandes. “The multinational [corporations] are going to leave, there will be no more work, and these territories will be makeshift camps. It’s going to be very ugly.”
Riofrancos and other researchers at the Climate and Community Project argue that drastically expanding lithium mining is not an adequate response to climate change. According to the group’s 2023 study, a combination of ambitious investments in mass transit and urban infrastructure, smaller EV batteries, and improved battery recycling could slash the amount of additional lithium required by up to 90 percent.
These shifts, Riofrancos says, would allow the United States to reduce greenhouse gases to zero by 2050—which scientists say is crucial to avoiding the worst effects of climate change—while minimizing mining threats to water sources, biodiversity, Indigenous sovereignty, and human rights.
“The United States has a high level of responsibility for climate justice as the largest historic producer,” Riofrancos says. “Oftentimes, these goals are framed as if we must choose [between them]. But the fastest way to address climate change is also the path that minimizes mining-related harm. We can do both, and we should.”