Lithium mining: The transformation of energy systems should not be achieved at the expense of communities in the Global South

Electromobility series: Pia Marchegiani from the argentine foundation FARN explains how resource extraction can impact on indigenous communities.

Electromobility’s drive to take over German roads is set to continue. According to the Federal Motor Transport Authority, fully electric passenger cars accounted for a 13.6 per cent share of new registrations in 2021, compared with just 6.7 per cent the previous year. And the federal government has set a target of at least 15 million fully electric passenger cars in Germany by 2030. In our Electromobility series of eco@work, we look at various aspects of e-mobility. We talked to Pia Marchegiani, Director for Environmental Policy at Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN), about lithium mining in her home country of Argentina.

Pia Marchegiani, Quelle privatLithium, a natural resource, is a key component of batteries for electric vehicles. Depending on the type of battery, they can contain 4-15 kg of this precious metal. In 2021, most of the world’s lithium output – around 55,000 tonnes – came from Australia, but Latin America has substantial deposits as well: 80 per cent of the world’s reserves are located in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Argentina produced around 6,200 tonnes of lithium in 2021 and currently has 62 lithium mining projects in operation.


Not at others’ expense

How lithium is extracted in her home country of Argentina, what impacts this has and whether community rights are respected in this context are questions that preoccupy Pia Marchegiani, Head of Environmental Policy at FARN (Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales). The foundation, established in 1985, advocates for sustainable development and improved standards in resource extraction, among other things. “The transformation of energy systems should not be achieved at the expense of communities in the Global South; it is a worldwide challenge,” she says. “It would be absurd if climate action on one side caused large-scale environmental and social problems on the other.”

In Argentina, lithium mines are often located on the territory of indigenous communities. Their rights are protected under various regulations as well as mining, environmental and indigenous laws, including international instruments to protect indigenous peoples such as International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169. “But Argentina’s mining law dates back to the 19th century and the way it includes participation rights is very superficial,” says Pia Marchegiani. “The environmental standards at least provide for a public debate about these projects, while the provisions of Convention No. 169 require the consent of the communities concerned and a government lead in the consultations on new projects. But unfortunately, that is often left out of the equation.” One of her grievances is that communities’ rights are frequently infringed – for example, if not all the relevant information about possible environmental impacts or other risk factors is made available. “In many cases, the communities lack the capacity to fully understand what lithium projects involve in a context of un-complete and controlled information by the companies– in other words, how these projects can impact on people and the environment. The basis for informed decision-making is absent.”


Assistance, trust, support

FARN provides the communities with support to understand and assert their rights. For example, the foundation offers legal assistance, files complaints with Argentina’s Supreme Court and uncovers critical points. “In some cases, communities and mining companies dialogue without intervention by a third party. It is the government’s responsibility to engage actively in these processes and in initiating and conducting consultations.” There should also be a dialogue that takes the specific characteristics of indigenous culture into account, says Pia Marchegiani. “Those responsible should engage appropriately with this culture, but also with the specific ecosystems at stake.” Here, there is a lack of detailed regulations on issues such as the use of water resources. “For example, it is not clear what happens if a water reservoir is used not just by one project but by two or three simultaneously. That naturally has impacts on a very different scale.”

At the same time, it is important for the communities to have their own experts whom they trust and who support them through the process. “The experts can assist the communities to fully understand environmental analyses, for example.” Pia Marchegiani is also calling for communities to be given more time to discuss new mining projects without any external influence. “Often, the companies’ sole concern is to implement the projects as quickly as possible.” Another task, according to FARN, is fostering communication among affected communities and network-building. “In this way, communities can share key information and lessons learned. One of our studies also shows that lithium projects improve if communities are mobilised and organise themselves, and if experts are involved and make their specialist knowledge available.”


Benefits not only for companies

As to whether communities can benefit from lithium projects as well, Pia Marchegiani turns the conversation to the additional services that mining companies offer. “They occasionally offer to provide healthcare, build schools or ensure access to clean water. That can be viewed as a positive impact at first sight, of course, but if you analyse it thoroughly these are issues that should not feature in the consultations and processes at all: they are the government’s responsibility.” The discussion could go to another direction instead. Also not exempted from controversy, , as Pia Marchegiani sees it, communities could discuss a share of the profits generated and not negotiate basic rights with companies. “That was the approach adopted for a project in Chile’s Atacama Desert, for example.”

Another key issue, for Pia Marchegiani, is to recognise from the outset that the land belongs to the communities and that they should have a voice in and take decisions on what happens to it. “That includes their right to say no – to a project as a whole, as well as to individual details.”

The social scientist Pia Marchegiani is committed to sustainable development in Latin America, especially Argentina. This has led her to work with various NGOs, often with a focus on vulnerable population groups. At FARN (Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, Foundation for the Environment and Natural Resources), Marchegiani is now Director for Environmental Policy. She helps communities and indigenous peoples exercise their rights in relation to resource mining projects in Argentina.

Further information

FARN website

En el nombre del litio

Article: “Lithium mine fails to respect communities’ rights in Argentina”

Graphics: “Minenproduktion von Lithium nach den wichtigsten Ländern im Jahr 2021 (in Tonnen)” on Statista

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