Latin America's pending lithium wars
Chileans are forming a "front to defend lithium", Argentinians turned to the Supreme Court
Global reserves of lithium - vital to batteries and other hi-tech products - are far from evenly spread across the world.
In fact, the vast majority of them are located in a band of territory between southern Bolivia and northern Argentina and Chile.
Indigenous peoples and other citizens in the region are becomig increasingly alarmed at the threats posed by exploitation of this "strategic" mineral.
In November 2010, thirty three Argentinian communities filed a lawsuit at the National Supreme Court, seeking cancellation of all mining permits granted without any Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
On 14 July 2011, the communities' concerns had figured in a report issued by James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
At the end of March 2012, they participated in a public hearing on the issue, organised by the Supreme Court.
Chilean social and union organizations are forming a "front to defend lithium" in response to their government's decision to auction lithium mining.
Meanwhile, the Bolivian government's state mining company has signed a preliminary agreement with a consortium formed by South Korean state-owned Kores and the huge steelmaker Posco, for development and production of lithium cathodes.
Native People in Argentina Demand a Say in Lithium Mining
By Marcela Valente
Inter Press Service (IPS)
29 March 2012
BUENOS AIRES - Native communities in northwest Argentina turned to the Supreme Court to claim their right to be consulted about projects for prospecting and mining of lithium, regarded as the mineral of the future, located under an enormous salt flat.
Representatives of 33 indigenous communities living in the vicinity of Salinas Grandes, huge salt deserts that spread over more than 17,000 square km of the provinces of Jujuy and Salta, made their case before the national Supreme Court on Wednesday Mar. 28.
For the last two years, 26 communities in Jujuy and six in Salta have been demanding an explanation from the authorities about plans to mine lithium, which the mining ministry believes will be the star mineral of the next 50 years.
Lithium is used to make rechargeable batteries for laptop computers, cell phones, digital audio and video players and other hi-tech products. It is also a component of electric cars, which run without the fossil fuels responsible for global warming.
Mineral compounds containing lithium are abundant in a vast region in southern Bolivia, northwest Argentina and northern Chile, which Forbes magazine calls "the Saudi Arabia of lithium." This area is thought to contain 85 percent of global lithium reserves.
Salinas Grandes is a fragile ecosystem, extending over the Guayatayoc lake basin. A large number of Kolla and Atacama indigenous communities whose livelihood depends on salt claim it as their ancestral territory.
In 2010, local indigenous people asked the Supreme Court to intervene and defend their right to consultations and free, prior and informed consent, enshrined in the Argentine constitution and International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 concerning indigenous and tribal peoples.
The Supreme Court summoned them to a public hearing in Buenos Aires on Mar. 28, which was attended by representatives and members of the communities, their lawyers and the provincial attorney-general of Jujuy, Alberto Matuk.
The attorney-general said the provincial government has not licensed any exploration or exploitation of lithium in the area occupied by the 33 communities, although it has issued licences for borate extraction, but on land outside the territory claimed by the plaintiffs.
With respect to borate mining, one community living in the area had been consulted, and to allay its fears about possible environmental harm, an impact study carried out by the mining firm had been presented, Matuk said.
Questioned by the judges, Matuk admitted it was true that companies have requested permission to explore for lithium and the government of Jujuy province "is analysing" the applications, but he stated that the communities would be consulted first, before any permits are issued.
However, Alicia Chalabe, one of the lawyers for the indigenous communities, told the court that several firms are posting on their websites that they are already operating in the area, with prospecting licences from the province.
She also stated that she never received a written answer from the provincial court that handles mining matters to her request for information in this regard. She was only given a verbal reply that no licence had been issued.
"We are demanding a consultation procedure that is not carried out by the companies, as has happened so far, but by the state. And the communities must give their consent," Chalabe told IPS after the Supreme Court hearing.
During her arguments, the judges interrupted Chalabe to ask her for a concrete definition of the communities' demands, since according to the provincial government, no company has yet been licensed to explore for lithium.
"Do you maintain that the state should ask for permission from native people, and that they have the right to refuse authorisation? Or are you asking for participation, while letting the state decide?" the president of the Supreme Court, Ricardo Lorenzetti, asked.
Chalabe replied, "We maintain that without the consent of the 33 communities, their collectively used land cannot be used for exploration or exploitation," whether or not other communities have given consent.
Liborio Flores spoke on behalf of the plaintiffs. "We are descended from native people and thanks to our cultural identity it is easier for us to live in a dry, remote region, without adequate services or communications," he said.
Flores told four Supreme Court judges that the communities in Salinas Grandes keep llamas and sheep, make handicrafts, and store water in the hills and valleys of upland areas for irrigating the vegetables they grow for their own consumption.
But the main traditional economic activity is salt mining. "Our grandparents used to cut blocks of salt, load them on donkeys and travel for 30 days to trade them," Flores said.
With global demand for lithium soaring, mining companies began to come to the salt flats, he said. They dig holes, sully the salt flats, build embankments, and contaminate the freshwater aquifers with salt.
"They never consulted us about the projects that were being planned. Some companies explained the plans to a few families, offering them work, and that caused divisions in our community," Flores complained.
The indigenous leader said the native communities want to preserve their cultural identity, but to do so they need to keep their territory. After he spoke in the hearing, he told IPS he was pleased to have been heard by the court.
"It was an opportunity to say what we feel about our situation," he said. "The Jujuy government says it has not granted any licences, but it has received applications, and if it is delaying authorisation, that is because we have organised ourselves."
Chalabe said she did not know why the Supreme Court had not summoned the provincial government of Salta, which is also being sued, and is implicated to a greater extent because it has allegedly issued exploration licences in areas inhabited by native communities.
In these areas, according to Chalabe, at least 47 perforations for lithium and borate have been drilled by the Orocobre company, and according to a study commissioned by indigenous organisations, the areas are already being contaminated.
The study, titled "Consideraciones ambientales en relación con la construcción de pozos de prospección minera y/o hidrogeológica en las Salinas Grandes" (Environmental aspects of drilling wells for mining or hydrogeology prospecting in Salinas Grandes) says the perforations "are causing impacts and endangering the surface salt water and aquifers."
This study was cited by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, in his December 2011 report sent to the Argentine Supreme Court in support of the suit by the 33 indigenous communities, after he had personally visited Salinas Grandes.
Kores-Posco consortium signs agreement with Comibol for lithium cathode project - Bolivia
Business News Americas
29 March 2012
A consortium formed by South Korean state company Kores and compatriot steelmaker Posco signed a preliminary agreement with Bolivian state miner Comibol for the development and production of lithium cathodes, state news agency ABI reported.
"The agreement will allow Kores-Posco and Bolivia to build a pilot plant to produce lithium cathodes," mining and metallurgy minister Mario Virreira was quoted as saying.
The initial stage of the project - which aims to give added value to the lithium carbonate produced at the Uyuni salt flat - will require a US$1.5mn investment, with each of the parties contributing 50%, local press reported.
Under the agreement, when this phase ends in late 2013, a decision will be made about the technology to be used for the industrial lithium cathode plant.
In August 2011, the Bolivian government signed an MOU with South Korea to start developing the Uyuni salt flat through potential partnerships with companies from the Asian country.
The Bolivian government has discarded offers from firms such as France's Bolloré, South Korean company LG, and Japan's Mitsubishi and Sumitomo because they were only aimed at mining lithium and not its development.
In 2010, Japan signed an MOU with the Bolivian government to provide technical support and training for lithium development. The same was done with Iran, which offered to support research in this industry.
The Bolivian government intends to mine the evaporite resources at the Uyuni salt flat, which has a surface area of about 10,000km2 and could have reserves of up to 8.9Mt lithium, 7.7Mt boron and 211Mt magnesium, in addition to sodium and calcium.
Chile Coordinates Lithium Defense Front
By Ileana Ferrer Fonte
1 March 2012
Santiago, Chile - Chilean social and union organizations are organizing the creation of a front to defend lithium, as a response to the government's decision to auction mining contracts for the strategic mineral.
Leaders of the Confederation of Copper Workers (CTC), the students' movement and other groups will meet on Thursday to fix the agenda of the coming mass mobilizations regarding this issue.
The objective is to prevent the Government's La Moneda initiative from being implemented. Social actors from the opposition described it as another attempt at privitisation by the current administration.
In remarks to Prensa Latina, CTC President Cristian Cuevas stated that the announced lithium auctions, which will take place through special contracts, is part of the philosophy of privatising the country's natural resources.
"We think, as copper workers that this is an illegal, arbitrary and unconstitutional action, aimed to deliver our natural resources to multinationals" the leader of the United Labor Federation said.
Chile to auction lithium mining contracts- report
7 February 2012
SANTIAGO - Chile will auction contracts for the right to explore and produce lithium, as the world's top copper producer seeks to boost its output of the material used in hybrid vehicles, computer and smartphone batteries, local media said on Tuesday.
Development of lithium, of which Chile holds a quarter of world reserves, has been stunted by a constitutional ban on concessions, according to Chilean daily La Tercera. Companies are allowed to rent lithium-producing properties, but the mineral never belongs to the
firm. Special contracts for lithium production, however, are legally permitted.
"The right to exploit around 100,000 tonnes of lithium for 20 years will be auctioned," mining subsecretary Pablo Wagner was quoted as saying on La Tercera's web site. "We know that if we delay a lot in developing this project we'll lose competitiveness and we could halve our market share."
A domestic and international roadshow is scheduled for the second quarter of the year and the first contract should be awarded by the end of 2012, according to La Tercera. Chile could reap $350 million per project, Wagner said.
Soquimich (SQM), which also produces fertilizer and iodine, and Sociedad Chilena del Litio (SCL) are the only firms currently producing lithium in Chile.
SQM's chief operating officer is the brother of mining minister Hernan de Solminihac. Wagner said the mining minister was not involved with the lithium contracts, La Tercera reported.