The Woes of Latin America’s Lithium Triangle
As the world races towards a greener future, the spotlight is shining on the Lithium Triangle - an alluring region spanning Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile that holds the key to our energy transition. Nestled within its vast 400,000 square kilometres lies almost 60% of the world's known lithium reserves - the lightest known metal on earth - an invaluable resource touted as the "white gold" fuelling our shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. As a critical component in batteries for electric cars, smartphones, and other electronic devices, the regions lithium reserves are becoming increasingly important to the global economy. But beneath the surface of this green promise lurks a complex tale of competing interests, pressing environmental challenges, and social struggles.
Although the production of lithium has generated substantial economic benefits, it has also caused significant environmental degradation and exploited developing nations, which has adversely impacted various Indigenous communities. As lithium is a critical component in achieving low or zero-carbon-based energy systems, the Lithium Triangle is becoming increasingly attractive to major powerful states who may continue to exploit these nations if adequate protection measures are not established. Without adequate sustainable development practices and regulations preventing exploitation, states within the Lithium Triangle may miss out on the positive impacts associated with renewable energy, and instead be more exposed to environmental, social, and Indigenous inequalities.
A juxtaposition: harming the environment whilst trying to save it?
Extracting natural resources can have harmful effects on the environment, including soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, and water shortages. Even though lithium is considered a key component in the transition to a more sustainable and electric future, it is still a non-renewable mineral that falls under the same category as fossil fuels. Lithium extraction has been shown to cause air contamination and soil damage, as well as impacting local communities' access to water, as the lithium is extracted from underground reservoirs which depletes water resources.
Due to Lithium not being a standalone product, it must first be processed into lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, and involves precipitating the metal from the solution, which requires freshwater. To extract just one ton of lithium, approximately 2.2 million litres of water are needed. This presents a major problem for water scarce areas that contain lithium, such as deserts. For example, in Chile’s Salar de Atacama various companies extracting lithium have utilised 65% of the region’s water supply. Consequently, severe water shortages have arisen, affecting not only the local farmers’ ability to cultivate crops and raise livestock, but also the region’s ecological balance. Recently, a report by Friends of the Earth (2021) highlighted how lithium mining can cause water-related conflict, such as the case of the Toconao community in northern Chile. Here, the Indigenous inhabitants, concerned about environmental degradation and freshwater scarcity, rejected funds from the mining company SQM, emphasising the need for environmental protection and Indigenous consultation. Furthermore, a 2021 report by the not-for-profit BePe underscored the urgent need to conduct comprehensive studies on the potential contamination of water caused by lithium mining operations.
Moreover, the process of extracting lithium also releases toxic chemicals such as sulphuric acid and sodium hydroxide, which can seep into and contaminate waterways with heavy metals and other hazardous substances. This has had severe consequences, including limiting access to safe drinking water and irrigation for local communities, as well as causing significant harm to wildlife in the region.
The negative environmental effects of lithium mining, such as water scarcity and conflict with local communities, not only have local implications but also extend globally. It is crucial to address these issues with a tailored approach that carefully evaluates the water usage impact of each lithium extraction project. Moreover, the environmental repercussions of unsustainable lithium mining practices in the Lithium Triangle have wider global implications. As we strive for the advancement of renewable energy, it is essential to ensure that environmental degradation and social injustices are not perpetuated elsewhere in the pursuit of sustainability.
A pattern of harm: from the environment to the people
Lithium mining raises not only environmental concerns but also social and political issues. Mining companies in the region have been accused of human rights abuses, including forced displacement, which particularly affects Indigenous communities. For instance, the Aymara people in Bolivia have voiced concerns about the impact of lithium mining on their communities, with fears that the mining industry will exacerbate existing inequalities and regional conflicts.
Residents within the Lithium Triangle have raised concerns surrounding the lack of consultation, disproportionate benefit sharing, and the absence of sufficient remedies for disruptions to their livelihoods and the environment. The ethical battery campaign launched by Amnesty International highlights the importance of ensuring the equitable distribution of benefits from lithium mining, along with respecting the rights of local communities. To implement sustainable lithium mining practices, it is imperative that legal frameworks governing the industry be revised. This is important to ensure that indigenous people and communities are not exploited, have their rights recognised, and to involve them in decision making processes.
Argentina's success in mining lithium has resulted in historically high mining exports, providing a rare bright spot for the country's struggling economy. Although lithium mining has provided job opportunities and boosted the economy, Argentina still struggles with a record high inflation rate of 104.3% as of March, and a drought affecting the agricultural industry. It is increasingly apparent that the big mining companies like China's Ganfeng Lithium or U.S. miner Livent Corp are the ones benefiting the most, rather than the local people. The Argentine mining sector accounted for $3.86 billion in exports last year, the highest level in a decade, with lithium exports accounting for almost a fifth of all mining shipments. The Argentine government expects mining revenues of $6 billion this year, partly due to two new lithium projects and two major expansions. Therefore, it is crucial that the profits from the mining industry benefit not only big mining companies, but also local communities that are environmentally and socially affected.
The desired green light at the end of the tunnel?
Environmental degradation as caused by lithium mining has led to the pursuit of innovative solutions to decrease ecological damage and regional conflict.
Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) for example, is a process of extracting lithium from brine. This involves pumping the brine into a series of vessels where it is then filtered and treated with various chemicals that separate the lithium. DLE is considered a more environmentally friendly and cost-effective method of extracting lithium compared to traditional methods, as this technology allows the preservation and protection of water resources. International Battery Metals, a renowned user of DLE, stated that they can recycle over 98% of processed water. Additionally, DLE rejects impurities, ensuring minimal toxins are present at the end of the process. However, a limitation of DLE is that it is currently more expensive than traditional methods of lithium extraction. While DLE can achieve higher purity levels of lithium, the process requires a higher level of energy input and is more technologically complex, which can make it more costly than other methods. Despite this limitation, Chile has made the use of DLE a requirement when extracting lithium to reduce the loss of the already scarce water.
Alongside improving lithium mining methods to mitigate negative environmental and social impacts, researchers like Gleb Yushin, a Materials Science Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, are exploring alternative battery materials that are less toxic and more abundant. Iron and silicon are two elements that have been proposed as potential replacements for lithium, as there are concerns that lithium reserves are not sufficient to keep up with future demand. By shifting towards more sustainable materials, the harmful effects of lithium extraction can be reduced.
The Future of Lithium
The Lithium Triangle's vast lithium reserves present both opportunities and challenges for the region and the global economy. The extraction of lithium has generated significant economic benefits, but it has also caused environmental degradation and exploited local communities.
By 2030, electric vehicles are expected to constitute up to 60% of new car sales, and as lithium-ion batteries are these vehicles' primary source, the demand for lithium will only increase in the coming years. To ensure a truly sustainable future, it is crucial to address the negative impacts through sustainable development practices and regulations. The equitable distribution of benefits, protection of Indigenous rights, and involvement of local communities in decision-making processes are essential.
Only by balancing economic benefits with environmental and social concerns can the states in the Lithium Triangle ensure the production of renewable energy is truly sustainable. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile must push for sustainable mining practices that prioritise the needs and well-being of local communities, rather than just advancing the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
Evangelia Wichmann is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts in International relations/politics and French at the University of Melbourne as well as a Diploma in Chinese Studies. Fluent in German, French, and Italian, Evangelia hopes to work in developing countries in humanitarian aid next year before continuing to study international relations and how to best address female rights and climate change within foreign aid.