Brenda Chávez – Mining in the 21st century Hispanosphere and beyond: transition, resistance and empowerment

Globally, we are experiencing a ‘gold rush’ for battery components that puts business before people’s rights, health, livelihoods, and natural resources.

Brenda Chávez is a journalist and researcher specialising in sustainability, consumption and culture

Cross-posted from Equal Times

Photo: Lithium mine in Bolivia – Oton Barros/Creative Commons

Mining projects to produce electric car batteries, solar panels and other elements useful for the green and digital transition are being promoted all over the world, both in the North and in the South. For the International Energy Agency, the critical minerals at this stage are lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper, graphite and rare earths. By 2040, the demand for them will be substantially higher, potentially quadrupling or even sextupling. And while the countries able to extract and process them will benefit from competitive advantages, these activities also have significant negative impacts.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), China, the United States and the European Union (EU) are leading the electromobility sector. Oxfam, which assessed the level of commitment shown by 43 mining companies linked to battery manufacturing (from various countries such as China, the US, Canada and several European countries) to Indigenous rights and, more specifically, free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), found an insufficient level of commitment to gender equality, due diligence, human rights and the protection of human rights defenders; that the lithium, cobalt and graphite battery mining sector is not prepared for a just transition; and recommended structural changes, empowering Indigenous communities and ensuring they have control over mining on their lands, to guarantee responsible production and use.

Listening and support networks

Meanwhile, the European Critical Raw Materials Act is seeking to reduce red tape, develop strategic partnerships with third countries and promote a circular economy by recycling 15 per cent of the annual consumption of these minerals by 2030. Recently, the II Latin American Caravan for Integral Ecology, organised by the Churches and Mining Network (Red Iglesias y Mineria) with the support of the Link Up for Justice (Enlázate por la Justicia) alliance, travelled across the EU with six representatives from Latin American countries affected by extractivism.

This network of organisations and individuals linked to the Church and civil society in general, present in nine countries, fosters democratic interaction, creates spaces for dialogue and makes resistance visible, promoting multilateral governance from below. “It emerged over ten years ago after listening to peoples that have been historically and routinely subjected to suffering. The transition is driving new forms of extraction, mainly by companies and governments of the Global North; the territories of the South continue to be sacrificial lands. Communities where lithium is extracted are left without water,” explains Guilherme Cavalli, Brazil’s representative in the caravan.

More than 30 per cent of the world’s lithium is mined in Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, often in ‘uninhabited’ areas, such as the salt flats.

The demand for it is driving heightened pressure, government incentives, the relaxation of environmental standards, and free trade and investment agreements that ensure a readiness to continue with a development approach and a lifestyle that leads to disaster.

In July, the Brazilian government boasted of exporting the first shipment of ‘green lithium’ to China from the Jequitinhonha valley in Minas Gerais, a state known for its mining tragedies, such as the Brumadinho dam collapse that killed more than 270 people [in 2019].”

In response to the surge in exploration projects, the network has initiated a process of debate and policy building with other movements and organisations, through the Minas Gerais hub: “We listen to the communities. We draw on their experiences to build public policies on the transition that protect human and environmental rights,” it stresses.

Rights and resistance

Chile, Argentina and Bolivia hold 68 per cent of global lithium reserves, according to the Latin American Social Sciences Council. Chile, moreover, is the world’s second largest producer after Australia. Under its new strategy, the state will have a majority stake in new projects, through a state-owned company. In 2023, senators Pedro Araya Guerrero and Francisco Huenchumilla presented a constitutional reform bill to guarantee the participation of Indigenous communities. “It is not a question of opposing or vetoing, but of seeking harmony and putting an end to exclusion,” Araya said.

In Argentina, Indigenous women are leading the defence of land. In June, the governor of Jujuy, a province in the ‘lithium triangle’ – in the north, bordering Chile and Bolivia – amended its constitution within weeks, bypassing the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) for the Indigenous communities and the wider population in Jujuy, curtailing land and community rights as well as protests and freedom of assembly. The move sparked resistance, initiated in the north-west by women from 400 Indigenous peoples. Some of them travelled more than 1,800 kilometres to reach the Palace of Justice in Buenos Aires on Pachamama (Mother Nature) Day, where they camped for several weeks.

“The way to tackle the impacts is to stop mega-mining, listen to those who have inhabited the territory for centuries, respect their rights, the environmental protection agreements, their culture and cosmovisions, promoting productive alternatives based on local economies that have a different way of interacting with the environment and people,” says Valentina Valdi, the Argentinian representative in the caravan.

“The current rates and patterns of consumption cannot be sustained without larger scale and more violent exploitation,” she adds.

In Guatemala, a sustainability guide for mining was presented in October 2023. “Some mining plants are not operating. The people stood up and said, ‘No to mining, yes to life’. They won the battle through hard work. In other cases, people’s wishes are bought and FPIC rights are violated,” explains Alex García, a member of the peaceful resistance to El Escobal mine in San Rafael Las Flores, Santa Rosa: “With the transition, many licences are authorised without free, prior and informed consent or assessments. We, as defenders, are very exposed. A Xinka community leader from Jutiapa was recently assassinated. We are fighting against a corrupt government and companies that only value money.”

Legal and illegal mining

In many countries, illegal mining is developing alongside projects awaiting authorisation. In Bolivia, a commission of the Chamber of Senators rejected 23 contracts for not complying with the mining legislation, not conducting environmental assessments, and not having FPIC. At the same time, Miriam Pariamo, vice president of the National Confederation of Indigenous Women, is calling on the government to tackle illegal mining, the pollution it creates, and to protect Indigenous peoples. “If we don’t take care of the environment, who will?” she asked, in a public statement.

In Peru, the legislation for lithium mining requires social and environmental impact assessments, free, prior and informed consent, a sustainable development plan and a closure plan. Meanwhile, illegal mining is threatening 30 Indigenous communities. The Regional Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of the Eastern Amazon (ORPIO) has denounced that 120 illegal dredgers are currently polluting the Nanay river – a tributary of the Amazon, rich in biodiversity, that provides fresh water to 500,000 people – and eleven other Amazonian rivers.

Indigenous groups in Loreto are also opposing the mining concession of the Geological Mining and Metallurgical Institute (Ingemmet) in the Maynas region, in the Nanay River basin. Daniela Andrade of the Churches and Mining Network lives there and works in the territories of the Kukama and Urarina peoples, besieged by oil, timber and mining activities:

“More than 100 years ago, the rubber genocide wiped out entire peoples. Today, the material has changed but the exploitation remains the same. Oil is coming to an end and mining is making a forceful entry; there are twice as many illegal dredgers as there were three years ago,” she says.

“A concession was granted for the Nanay and over 60 requests have been made for the Marañón River by businessmen from Madre de Dios, the country’s mining hell. We don’t have decent water, they have affected our springs and our food. In Loreto there aren’t critical minerals like in the south, where they no longer have water either, nor health, with heavy metals detected in the blood and rare diseases that are not being treated. For Europe – or certain social classes in Latin America – it is an energy transition; for us, it is about defending our families and ways of life,” says Andrade.

Victories and precedents

In the Ecuadorian Amazon, mining grew by 300 per cent from 2015 to 2021. “The national mining land registry is a disgrace, the concessions are in areas that are crucial in terms of water and biodiversity,” says Lucy Urvina, Ecuador’s representative in the caravan. The country has seen a wave of consultations in recent years. In 2023, 70 per cent of the province of Pichincha voted to protect forests and ban metal mining. It was a historic victory for communities who have been fighting for their land for over 25 years.

In August, the provincial court suspended a project in the Kimsakocha páramo, which serves as a water recharge area for millions of people. It set a precedent by requiring two FPIC consultations (with Indigenous peoples and local people) and an environmental consultation. The president will not abide by the ruling, the government is promoting extraction, offering tax incentives of up to US$400 million and an international arbitration system to resolve disputes.

In 2011, Kimsakocha held the first consultation with international observers and Indigenous leaders; 93 per cent voted against mining. The government invalidated it. Signatures were gathered by advocates for a constitutionally binding referendum, held in Girón in 2019; Again, 90 per cent voted ‘no’ to mining. In 2021, in Cuenca, the capital of Azuay province and the third largest city in Ecuador, 80 per cent decided to protect its water.

Transnational and inter-territorial supply chain dialogue and support networks

The non-profit organisation Electronics Watch is running a three-year pilot programme in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bolivia that promotes dialogue in the supply chain and provides training to thousands of miners in health and safety, human, labour, environmental and gender rights.

“We also help to set up grievance procedures and mechanisms for assessing minerals, ensuring fair pay. During this transition, we need to listen to the miners’ experiences and their involvement in innovations that protect the environment; we have identified interesting practices,” says Fabrice Warneck, the organisation’s monitoring director, and Rocío Paniagua, the low-emission vehicle programme manager.

They also instruct ten public sector buyers on requirements and public tenders that encourage due diligence, in line with the EU regulation on conflict minerals and the OECD model. “Public procurement can play a key role in promoting responsible and transparent sourcing. We are designing two tendering instruments to incorporate due diligence practices in their procurement,” says the organisation.

Some of these tools to strengthen monitoring at mines, to engage with stakeholders in the supply chain and to help public buyers promote responsible mining practices will be shared with more than 1,500 organisations that are either directly affiliated or affiliated through consortia, networks or authorities.

Many resistance groups are weaving alliances, regardless of whether they involve critical minerals. In Spain, the citizens’ platform against the open pit quartz macro-project in north-east Segovia signed the international Caminando contra la Minería (Marching against Mining) Manifesto: “The European law will make it easier to extract strategic materials. Spain is rich in a variety of minerals. We are concerned about the environment and about the establishment of strict reuse and recycling policies,” its members explain.

“What is happening here is also happening in the Corneja Valley, in Terra Cha in ‘emptied Spain’, Sweden, Argentina or Tanzania. Companies land in ‘demographic deserts’ with hardly any social fabric, believing that there will be no opposition,” they continue.

At the start of their campaign, the residents of the ‘No to the Mine’ platform in the Corneja Valley sought advice from nearby platforms in the sierras of Ávila and Yemas. They are now part of the network of anti-mine platforms in the Iberian Peninsula. They share the same conclusion: “Globally, we are experiencing a ‘gold rush’ that puts business before people’s rights, health, livelihoods, natural resources and water.”

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