A Danwatch investigation

Much of the world’s lithium is being extracted from indigenous peoples’ territories against their will

The ponds on these drone shots are only a small share of the total lithium extraction area which covers around 80 square kilometres of the Atacama’s surface.

Sophia Boddenberg
Photo: Pablo Rojas Madariaga
1. December 2019
As nationwide protests hit Chile, indigenous communities blocked the roads to nearby lithium-extraction sites. Authorities are obliged to confer with them before mining in their territories, but indigenous groups claim they have not been consulted.

On the same October morning that around one million people took to the streets of the Chilean capital Santiago, members of the indigenous communities of the Atacama Desert blocked the roads leading to nearby lithium-extraction sites.

About the investigation

Danwatch has been to Chile to investigate the country’s growing lithium extraction industry. In the process, we have interviewed numerous scientists, companies, politicians and the people who live closest to the extraction sites.

We have reviewed the mining companies’ impact studies as well as the few independent research papers on the topic. We especially base our investigation on a 2019 study on lithium mining in Chile by researchers from Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability.

The investigation was supported by the EU-funded project Make ICT Fair and published in collaboration with Setem.

Waving Wiphala flags — the colorful emblem commonly used to represent the indigenous peoples of the Andes — they prevented trucks from using the regular roads to transport lithium throughout the day. As in the rest of the country, many of them held signs protesting the Chilean government. But distinctive for the Atacama, some also carried banners criticising the two lithium mining companies that operate in the area: the US firm Albemarle and the Chilean company SQM.

“We hope to continue protesting until the state hears us and attends our legitimate demands,” Sergio Cubillos, president of the Atacama People’s Council, which represents 18 indigenous communities, told Reuters.

The nationwide rallies against inequality and the absolute power of the government coincide with the views of many representatives of the Atacama’s indigenous Likanantaí communities, who claim their position on lithium extraction has been ignored for decades.

“The conflict on lithium extraction is really about the fact that the local Likanantaí population does not have any influence on the development of their territory. In this way, the conflict is very much connected to the nationwide protests for greater democratization and economic redistribution”, says Maria Cariola, an anthropologist working for the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts, a Chilean NGO.

Ongoing protests

Skyrocketing global demand for lithium in batteries used in electronics and electric cars has recently seen the Chilean authorities pave the way for even more lithium extraction.

The Wiphala emblem and a Chilean flag on a Chakana cross in the Atacama Desert. The Wiphala is commonly used to represent some of the indigenous peoples of the Andes in today’s Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Colombia. The Chakana cross is especially known from the Incas. The Atcama was conquered and ruled by the Incas in the 15th century until the Spanish colonizers annexed the area under Spanish rule in 1556.


Is there any such thing as ‘green mining’?

In 2019 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was handed to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for the development of the lithium-ion battery - amongst other things, because it enables electric vehicles and mega batteries that can “store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society.”

Such a transition to low-carbon technologies however fuels new demands for particular minerals used in for example solar panels, wind turbines and batteries.

Many scientists say that more mineral extraction for renewables is without a doubt preferable to a continued dependence on fossil fuels.

Nevertheless, the costs of extracting new groups of minerals for renewables become more evident as global demands rise.

Lithium is mined in various ways around the world, each with appertaining risks and drawbacks. Out of the top five lithium producing companies, all five have human rights allegations against them according to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center.

In Australia and North America, lithium is extracted from rock but requires the use of chemicals which have led to pollution of water resources in the US. In Tibet, a Chinese lithium mine has caused environmental pollution resulting in fish dying in nearby rivers.

In Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, lithium is extracted from subterranean brine deposits. The main environmental problem in this regard is the massive use of water resources from arid areas.

While scientists are optimistic about finding alternatives to other harmful components of lithium-ion batteries, such as cobalt, alternatives to lithium seem to have long prospects. A lot of research is however currently done on the potential reuse of lithium-ion batteries. Only very few rechargeable batteries are being recycled today.

Sources: Nobelprize.org, Business and Human Rights Resource Center, The Verge, Washington Post, Wired, Friends of the Earth, Danwatch

Discontent with lithium mining has rumbled on for years among the area’s estimated 20,000 Likanantaí people, but protests have flared in the past two years in particular. In January 2018, the Chilean economic development agency CORFO signed a contract with SQM that enabled the company to triple its lithium extraction over the coming years and extended its mining access to the Atacama until 2030. Though CORFO’s executive vice president said the deal was struck after consulting some of the communities that live nearest the extraction sites, the weeks of demonstrations, roadblocks and even hunger strikes initiated by leaders of the indigenous groups tell another story.

An expansion of mining licenses on their territory was understood as a major encroachment on the indigenous peoples’ rights, Sergio Cubillos tells Danwatch.

“The lithium mining has a massive impact on us — both our local environment and ecosystems as well as our culture and the social life we have always been practicing”, he says.

Three court cases

Since January 2018, the Atacama People’s Council has sought to block the expansion of mining licenses at both Chile’s Appeals Court and its High Court. And it has taken the matter to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where a case is currently being prepared.

Almost 40 percent of the global lithium supply has come from Chile over the past 20 years, and, as Danwatch can reveal, it ends up in some of the most popular electronics and electric cars.

Vladimir Jorge Reyes from the Coyo community says that families are leaving the area because of the water scarcity. “We are not against progress”, he says. “But we think the companies should exploit the resources - our resources - in a more responsible way”

“The race for attracting new investments, pushed by the EV market growth in Europe and the US, is putting both human rights and the ecological value of the salt flats in second place. It is really no wonder the affected people are protesting”, says Ramón Morales Balcázar from the Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats, a network of people from the Atacama communities, NGOs and researchers in the region.

Had the Chilean state conferred with indigenous communities in the area, the new licenses would have looked different, says Sergio Cubillos. He emphasises that it is the miners’ massive brine and water consumption that especially worries the indigenous communities and makes them fear for the survival of their culture and way of life amid increasing water scarcity.

“We were never properly consulted on this decision”, he says.

Never had informed consent

Chile has ratified the International Labour Organisation ILO’s Convention No. 169, which obliges governments to consult indigenous peoples when major projects intervene in their environment and ancestral territory.

However, Albemarle’s and SQM’s licenses to mine lithium in the Atacama date to 1982 and 1993 respectively — many years before the Chilean government signed the convention, in 2008. Concerning the renewed contract that prolongs SQM’s license and enables it to expand production, the Atacama People’s Council had hoped to have the opportunity to be heard in the process.

So far, however, the council’s case has been rejected by both the Appeals Court and the High Court. The courts did not rule out consultation being necessary when SQM initiates the expansion of its extraction in the future. For now, however, the fundamental rights of the surrounding communities have not been violated, the verdicts said. CORFO has also stressed that the renewed contracts only increase the amount of lithium that can be extracted while not increasing the maximum brine quantities.

But that does not change that the indigenous populations were never consulted, says critics.

“You have to be very clear that the indigenous peoples of Chile have never been properly consulted in relation to lithium extraction”, says Marcel Didier Von Der Hundt, a lawyer and legal advisor at the Observatorio Ciudadano, a Chilean NGO focused on the promotion of human rights.

“NO MINING” on a bus stop outside of San Pedro de Atacama.

  • Around 1,5 million indigenous peoples live in Chile today which equals around 9 percent of the country’s population
  • Chile’s indigenous peoples have traditionally been marginalised and persecuted by the state, and many groups have fought for greater autonomy.
  • Then Chilean president Salvador Allende introduced reforms to give back some land to indigenous groups in the 1970’s, but reforms were cancelled when the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet came to power. Pinochet subsequently privatized indigenous ancestral lands
  • After Pinochet was removed, different Chilean governments has kept promoting forestry concessions and energy infrastructure on indigenous territories.
  • As a result, recent years have seen numerous confrontations between indigenous groups and the Chilean authorities or mining and logging companies.

Sources: IWGIA, Journal of Latin American Studies

“Even if the companies have made contracts with some of the communities about some financial compensation, we have never seen anything that resembles the type of informed consent that the convention demands”, he adds.

Clear-cut claim for consultation

Birgitte Feiring, a former chief advisor on the ILO’s programme to promote Convention No. 169, stresses that she cannot comment on the concrete Chilean case, but points to an example from Ecuador that has set precedent for similar cases in the ILO. Here, an indigenous group won a case concerning the right to consultation with a company that extracted oil and gas from their territory. The company had initiated the project before Ecuador ratified Convention No. 169, but because the extraction and its effects were ongoing after the ratification, the indigenous peoples should still be consulted about the impact of the project, the ILO stated.

“This case set precedent for similar cases. And if a contract is altered and expanded after the ratification of the convention, there is a clear-cut claim for consultation”, Birgitte Feiring says.

Pinochet’s son-in-law

Both SQM and Albemarle have been criticised for not having a proper human rights policy in place.

SQM’s reputation among the Chilean public has long been troubled. Once a state-owned company, it was privatized during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet’s then son-in-law, Julio Ponce Lerou, was president of the agency that supervised SQM’sprivatization and in the process, he bought about a third of the company’s shares for a price far below market rates, according to later estimates by Chilean auditors.

ILO’s Convention No. 169

ILO Convention No. 169 is a legally binding agreement on the rights of indigenous peoples from 1989 and the precursor to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007. The Convention establishes a government's obligation to recognize and protect indigenous peoples' rights and states the following:

  • A government must consult the indigenous peoples with the purpose of reaching a common agreement as soon as it considers to introduce measures that may affect them.
  • Indigenous peoples have the right to decide for themselves the priorities for the development of their areas and, as far as possible, to control the processes and implementation of programs that affect them. In addition, the government commits itself to ensure that studies of the consequences of planned activities are conducted in collaboration with the indigenous peoples and to protect and preserve the environment in the areas where the indigenous peoples live.
  • In the Convention, the term "land" refers to any area where indigenous peoples live or use in their daily life.

Source: ILO

In recent years, the company has been investigated for several cases of tax evasion, money laundering and illegal campaign-funding. In a major public scandal in 2014, politicians from across the spectrum were found to have received major sums of money to look after the company’s interests.

“They were financing the whole political class. So, no one in Congress would approve a law that would actually supervise what they were doing in their lithium-extraction projects”, says Marcel Didier Von Der Hundt of Observatorio Ciudadano.

Money does not mean consent

Albemarle has a more mixed reputation among the indigenous peoples of the Atacama. From 2016, the company began paying large sums of money for community-development purposes to representatives and projects among the nearby indigenous groups. According to the company, as much as three percent of Albemarle’s sales are used on community developement and shared with the Atacama People’s Council.

They were financing the whole political class. So, no one in Congress would approve a law that would actually supervise what they were doing in their lithium-extraction projects

Marcel Didier Von Der Hundt, Observatorio Ciudadano

The deal has sparked conflicts among the local communities: some actors and organizations oppose taking money from the mining companies, while others claim the money is largely going to local elites.

Sergio Cubillos, the president of the Atacama People’s Council, which has received funding from Albemarle, tells Danwatch that money from the company has been used especially to fund a local team of scientists who will do more research on the environmental impact of the mining and try to inspect whether the companies are extracting more than they are allowed to.

“It is true we receive resources from the company, but that does not mean that we approve of their extraction — they have been mining these minerals for 20 years, but now we can use this money to actually do something about it”, he says.

You probably have Chilean lithium at home

  • For the past 20 years, Chile has accounted for almost 40 percent of the global supply of lithium.
  • The metal is essential for making the rechargeable batteries used in computers, smartphones and electric cars, and thus, there is Chilean lithium in a lot of the world’s most popular products
  • As Danwatch can reveal, companies such as Samsung, Panasonic, Apple, Tesla and BMW get batteries from firms that use Chilean lithium

Doing more than what the convention prescribes

Albemarle’s Country Manager in Chile, Ellen Lenny-Pessagno, admits that no consultation with indigenous peoples took place before Albemarle got permission to mine, as prescribed by Convention No. 169, but says this is because Albemarle entered Chile’s system for evaluation before the country had ratified the convention. She tells Danwatch that the company has good relations with the communities of the Atacama salt flat, stressing that Albemarle holds monthly meetings with the Atacama People’s Council.

“Our internal processes of dialogue with communities are characterized by being of a higher standard than that required by the Authority to comply with Convention 169”, Ellen Lenny-Pessagno writes in an email, adding that Albemarle’s agreements with local communities are “processes of permanent dialogue and not only to obtain permissions.”

She furthermore points out that the consultation required by Convention No. 169 is an obligation for governments rather than companies, and that there was a certain citizen participation process when Albemarle received its first permit.

Likewise, Alejandro Bucher, SQM’s senior vice president for technology, communities and the environment, maintains that CORFO’s new agreement with SQM does not require consultation with the indigenous peoples.

The Atacama Salt Flat is surrounded by some of Chile’s most active volcanos.

It is true we receive resources from the company, but that does not mean that we approve of their extraction

Sergio Cubillos, president, Atacama People's Council

“This was defined by CORFO”, says Alejandro Bucher.

“However, the company has always maintained dialogue and a relationship with the communities surrounding the operation”, he adds.

CORFO, which owns the mining concessions at the Atacama salt flat and leases them to the lithium-mining companies, also stresses that CORFO’s contracts with the mining companies were signed prior to Chile’s ratification of Convention No. 169.

In an email to Danwatch vice-president of CORFO Antonia Eyzaguirre Altamirano stresses that Convention No. 169 concerns “legislative or administrative measures” that may affect indigenous peoples. Since the renewed contacts do not constitute legislative or administrative measures but agreements between two parties, there is no demand for consultation, Antonia Eyzaguirre Altamirano argues.

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