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Can We Develop Andean Lithium Reserves in an Ethical Way?

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An aerial view shows the brine pools of SQM lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat in the Atacama desert of northern Chile, January 10, 2013. Picture taken January 10, 2013. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado – RC1264DB5810

Obviously, we need to do whatever is necessary to transition to green energy. But who pays for that? Given that some of the largest lithium reserves are in the high deserts of the Andes, especially in Bolivia and Chile, this is likely to replicate the centuries-long exploitation of indigenous peoples that has defined the history of those nations, especially around mineral extraction. Look at what’s happening in Chile:

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).

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.”

Now, as the article correctly states, no one is really fighting this in Chile. Everyone knows it is necessary. The indigenous people in the area don’t particularly value lithium and they aren’t getting paid much but they are getting made more than they do for other things. What this really does is lead to larger question over development. The sad thing is that all these years into globalization, the contemporary left still does not have a coherent critique that makes sense. How do we, within a global marketplace, ensure environmental sustainability, labor rights, and treating people with dignity within the reality that globalization is going nowhere? It felt to me that the supply chain issues around Covid gave us the opportunity to turn attention to these questions for the first time since the decline of the sweatshop movement in the aftermath of 9/11 and Bush’s wars, but it did not.

So what do people think we should do here?

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