Under a pale lavender sky, four women walk up to a small house, in Fiambalá, a small mountain town, in the northern reaches of Argentina.
This is the third time they knocked at this door on December night. They are armed with a notebook containing statistical information and maps, as well as an appeal they have been making for months.
They are hoping to add another signature against a new lithium project at their doorstep. The Catamarca Province, located in northwestern Argentina, is rich with the resource that is supposed be fueling a green revolution.
“It’s like a man was just telling us, the mining company is dominating the municipality,” Yolanda Espinoza, a high school teacher, told Maria Julia Idiarte, who answered the door.
“There are laws, but they’re not being respected,” she said, sitting next to her collaborator Beatriz Perea, a university professor. The women are part of the Asamblea Fiambalá Despierta (Fiambala Wakes Up), an organisation formed to oppose a lithium project spearheaded by the Argentinian mining company Liex. It is owned by Canada’s Neo Lithium, which recently announced it would be purchased by China’s Zijin Mining Group.
Tres Quebradas is located at 4,200m above sea level in an ethereal landscape with volcanoes, flamingos, and vicu.ñas – small llamas – in an internationally protected wetland in the province of Catamarca. But it’s the salt flats, that shimmer like a mirage, that are turning more heads lately.
Tres Quebradas was part of an Argentine wave of lithium exploration, prompted by the urgent need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Residents and lawmakers are eager to reap the economic benefits of the industry, which is being marketed as a solution for climate change.
Yet, there are divisions increasingly visible in the communities that dot the “lithium triangle” at the intersection of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Farmers, indigenous peoples, activists, scientists, and farmers have launched legal challenges, conducted investigations and staged roadblockades to protest lithium projects. The concerns of Asamblea Fiambalá Despierta are typical: they centre around the impact on local water sources and land.
Liex bills itself as a different kind of mining company — and after five years of exploration and assessments, is awaiting final approval for production to begin.
“It’s clear that our representatives are selling out,” said Espinoza. “But if the town doesn’t raise its voice — that’s what we’re trying to make people understand: that the village can go out and protest.”
This is a boom time for lithium. Due to the growing demand for lithium batteries to power our phones, computers and other devices, mining for the lightest element on Earth has been increasing since the 1990s. The rise of the electric car and the promise of a cleaner future has driven the lithium rush to high gear. Both the national and provincial governments in Argentina have positioned lithium development as a significant opportunity, despite Argentina being in an economic crisis.
“The objective… is to continue developing the industrialisation of lithium and in that sense we are receiving very good proposals every day. We see genuine and real interest in the development of the entire chain,” said Matías Kulfas, Argentina’s minister of productive development, who oversees industrial policies, in April 2021 as he unveiled a national committee on lithium with the northern provinces of Jujuy, Catamarca and Salta.
“Catamarca is mining,” its governor Raúl Jalil said at the time. “[We are looking for] sustainable mining that spills into the communities and generates more work.” Catamarca alone has 15 lithium projects, most in the initial stages of prospecting or exploration, with names like “Salt of Life” and “Salt Gold”. The companies include Livent, a US-based lithium producer, which plans to expand. A growing player in the area, South Korea’s Posco, has announced plans to spend $830 million (£692 million) on a lithium processing plant with an annual production capacity of 25,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide, which it says can power 600,000 electric vehicles.
Marcelo Sticco is a geologist who is part of a research team at the University of Buenos Aires. This group studies lithium mining in northern Argentina. “We’re all in favour of the energy transition and reducing the use of fossil fuels,” he said. “But locally it produces an irreversible impact with respect to water.”
Latin American communities have heard many times that they will be prosper. Trust has been poisoned by large-scale copper and gold mining operations that have left behind environmental destruction.
Massive protests took place in the south of Argentina last week, prompting the governor of Chubut to revoke a bill its legislature had just passed to allow mining. The lithium protesters in Fiambalá consider themselves to be part of the same battle against massive extraction.
Argentine lithium falls under a category called mining. This allows companies to explore the land and mine it without having to own it. The government is not allowed to do the same. This means that taxes are the only way to benefit the state’s coffers. Many times, mining companies become stand-ins for state spending on community improvement and infrastructure improvements. This is seen by supporters as a social obligation and by opponents as a way to win hearts.
“The only way to know if you are doing things right is by walking,” said Carlos Arizu, the owner of Tizac wineries, on the edge of Fiambalá. Tizac is the largest producer in the area, producing around 200,000 bottles each year. “The grape talks and this vine is lacking water,” he told Climate Home News.
Arizu used to get his water from a mountain iceberg, just like the rest of the town. But a few years back, he drilled 80m underground and now pays to pump water to his plants. The price of the water jumps by leaps and bounds with Argentina’s chronically high inflation, so he has to measure his usage to make sure he doesn’t go broke.
“We’re all small producers, the average vineyard is less than one hectare,” said Arizu. “There is not enough water for the producers that exist.”
A report published in 2021 by the nonprofit BePe (Bienaventuradores de Pobres) identified the potential impact on water – which is part of lithium processing – as a chief concern, saying that not enough research had been done on the potential contamination of water or the ability of underground water sources to recharge.
“Faced with the innumerable uncertainties about environmental prejudices and possible ecosystem damage, the activity must be stopped until studies are available to reliably determine the magnitude of the damage,” the report stated, noting that “neighbours denounce that the legitimate right to public consultation was not respected.”
Matías Berardini told Climate Home News that he understands the scepticism considering the track record that mining has. Berardini, the general manager of Liex’s “community relations” office in Fiambalá, located around the corner from the main square, said the company has taken steps to dispel myths, contribute to the community, and marshal those who knock on their doors looking for work.
“The deposit is very good in its composition, storage, in the amount of lithium, and that allows us to work in a way that is very efficient,” he said.
Concerns over water usage, he said, are “an old excuse” but “as a mining company we need to ensure that the fear disappears”.
“In comparison to other lithium projects, we consume much less water. We’re always less than 50% of any other project. It’s not that we’re the best guys in the world, it’s just that the chemistry in our salt flat allows us to use a much more natural process,” said Berardini.
Liex will use pumps and other means to extract brine rich in lithium. Then, it will pour the liquid into pools to evaporate to a concentration of 3-4%. It will then be transported to a Fiambala plant for a chemical process that produces lithium carbonate.
The company says that brine it is drawing on in the salt flat to extract lithium comes from a basin that has no connection to the town’s water supply.
Pia Marchegiani, director of environmental politics at Argentina’s Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Environment and Natural Resources Foundation) said statements like these are misleading.
“Just because it’s not being consumed by people doesn’t mean it will not have an impact,” she told Climate Home News. “It is fulfilling an ecosystem function that has not been studied. If that salt water displaces, runs into, or invades the fresh water, there will be an impact,” she said.
Patricia Marconi is a biologist and president at Fundacion Yuchan. She said that the company uses the same amount salt water as any other company using that method for evaporation. Although it uses less water in the subsequent stages, the information is not complete.
“They aren’t declaring the amount of freshwater that they will extract for the processing stage, that they will be drawing on from the Abaucan basin, the same one that supplies Fiambala,” Marconi told Climate Home News. “It is the same aquifer. That’s in the environmental assessment and they can’t deny it.”
Marchegiani also highlighted another risk, the carbon trapped in salt flat microorganisms. “The last thing we want is for a carbon sink to become a carbon source,” she said.
Sticco stated that the extraction method can affect the risk. The most dangerous companies, he stated, are those that use evaporation in order to precipitate lithium from salted brine underground. This is because of the composition underground. Sticco described the salt flat as a sponge with underground pores that have freshwater and salinated. “There isn’t a wall that separates the two waters. There is a border between freshwater and very salinated water, and an area that is mixed. So when you take from the middle, that has lithium, you move all the water,” he said. “Freshwater turns into salt water,” he said.
The process of precipitation also leaves behind large amounts of metals that were originally underground — elements like cadmium, lead, manganese and copper — that if not properly disposed of can contaminate superficial water sources, said Sticco. He noted a “double standard” in Argentina — rules demand that the petroleum industry properly remediate similar toxic waste, but no such rules apply to lithium mining.
Berardini acknowledged that certain risks exist with the project — the movement of trucks being one of them, along with ensuring the responsible operation of the chemical processing plant.
“But the potential for impact is very low,” he said. “What did we bring to an area like Fiambalá? Well, the prospect of work that pays much more than the median.”
Like the rest Catamarca, the town of 8000 is plagued by unemployment. The Liex project is expected to create 300 permanent jobs at a chemical plant, as well as another 1,000 in offshoot sectors. “I earn double of what my brother, who works for the municipality, earns,” said one Liex miner who asked to remain anonymous.
Julieta Carrizo (27), is a spinner. The youngest member of the Fiambalá Asamblea, she recently returned to live in the town where her grandparents lived.
“I went to Liex, they defended everything without any real arguments. Everything was in metaphors. And they ended up offering me a job, as I kept arguing,” said Carrizo. She is more interested with the hard numbers. Liex claims that it takes 14 cubic meters of water to make 1 tonne lithium carbonate. This is more than 700,000. litres of water per day for a production goal to produce 20,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate annually.
“They sell it like it’s renewable energy, and it’s green, and people catch on to that, and they think they want to be part of the future, but they don’t see that it’s a neocolonial practice that is the same as always, but with a refresh,” she said.
Lithium’s water problem
Some 500 kilometres away, ensconced between red rockfaces 3,500 metres above sea level, Román Guítan zooms into a Google Earth satellite image of the Salar del Hombre Muerto, the Dead Man’s Salt Flat. This is Catamarca’s northernmost end. Livent, an American chemical company, is currently undergoing a $640million expansion of its Fenix lithium mining operation, which has been operating for more than 20 year. At least five additional projects are being explored or extracted in the immediate area.
“This that you see here, all in yellow. That’s the meadow that is in danger,” said Guítan, pointing to a patch on a map to the east of the salt flat, from which a tributary flows.
He’s sitting at the kitchen table of Alfredo Morales and Eli Mamani, in Antofagasta de la Sierra, a small mountain town near the Livent mining project. They are members of a Diaguita community of around 40 people called Atacameños del Altiplano. Guítan is its chief. His home is located within eyesight of the Livent mining project — he skirts the processing plant on his way to and from Antofagasta de la Sierra, keenly aware of the mine security vehicles that shadow him at a distance. Livent’s expansion threatens the gravesite of Guítan’s great grandfather, metres from a road used by mining trucks, and the remains of an unidentified man his great grandfather discovered, after whom the Dead Man Salt Flat is named.
Livent’s expansion plans will see it draw water from an aquifer under Los Patos river, the most important water source in the region.
National green group Farn published a 2020 report on behalf of Catamarcan activistsThis document outlines the objections to this plan. According to the group, the provincial government approved the project without consulting local and indigenous communities. It cited an environmental impact report by Livent that requested the withdrawal of 650,000 litres of water from Los Patos an hour — noting that four other companies have made similar petitions for “huge” amounts of water from the same river.
Climate Home News asked Livent for comment, but Livent did not reply.
According to Sticco, the geologist, the data he has viewed doesn’t show any significant impact on local water resources. Unlike another lithium project in the neighbouring province of Jujuy, which not only depleted the community’s water source but left behind an expensive cleanup of toxic waste, Livent’s numbers suggest the consumption of water is “pretty minimal” because they do not employ a conventional evaporation technique.
“That being said, I’m keeping the yellow [caution]Light on [with their project],” he says.
The issue, said Marconi, is that there aren’t inventories on the amount of underground water that exists, making it difficult to say how the Livent process is affecting the supply.
“There is a very serious problem here in that they evaluate the amount and quality of lithium but they don’t assess the amount of water that exists,” said Marconi.
Guítan and his allies say more than caution is required.
“They’ve labelled us as anti-mining, that we are trying to block things, that we are against progress. The government and the companies say that, but that’s not true,” says Alfredo Morales, who argues there should be “controlled” mining that leaves resources in the ground.
“Now the latest is that they’re trying to tell us that the water they use is ‘industrial’. That it isn’t fit for human consumption,” he said. “But we’ve been drinking that water for more than a century.”
The community has already seen what it believes to be the consequences of the project — a meadow associated with the Trapiche River is dry, and no one has taken responsibility for that, says Guítan.
This revelation was documented in the Farn report, and described as “irreversible damage” to the ecosystem.
“The drying up of plains and rivers is just the tip of the iceberg of an environmental deterioration on the fragile balance of the Puna and the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples and the communities that inhabit the place,” it wrote.
More recently, Guítan lodged a complaint about the large-scale death of trout — something he says that the company has denied ever occurred
“That’s why we’re very afraid that the same thing will happen with the meadow where I live. It is used between December and March. It feeds sheep, llamas, vicuñas, ducks, seagulls. It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “If they end up drying that up, we’ll lose it all.”
This article is part of a climate justice reporting programme supported by the Climate Justice Resilience Fund. Cover image: A brine evaporation pool at Liex’s 3Q lithium mine project in the salt flat of Tres Quebradas near Fiambala, Catamarca, Argentina. Photo by Anita Pouchard Serra.
Source: Climate Change News