|Lithium mine, Australia|
1. Bolivia, Argentina, Chile.
Within the borders of these three countries is an area known as the Lithium Triangle. So called because within this triangle can be found over 50% of the world’s lithium reserves.
Current global lithium reserves are estimated to be around 80 million tonnes. Bolivia contains 21 million tonnes, and Argentina and Chile contain 17 million and 9 million, respectively.
The Lithium Triangle is one of the driest places on earth, and that creates potential for massive environmental disaster from lithium mining. Extraction of lithium in this area requires huge amounts of water (500,000 gallons for each tonne of lithium extracted.) In the Sala de Atacama region of Chile lithium mining takes 65% of the regions water. That is a massive load on a very dry region. This has (as can be expected) a devastating impact on the local farmers.
Furthermore, toxic chemicals are needed to process this lithium. Spills and leaching contaminate water systems, harming local ecosystems.
The problems are not confined to environmental ones. In November 2019, a coup (sometimes referred to as the Lithium Coup) in Bolivia toppled the Evo Morales government. Within months it became apparent that the coup had been assisted (if not organised) from with the US government. In July 2020 Elon Musk was accused, via twitter, of being a leading figure in assisting the coup, because he wanted access to the lithium reserves. Musk blatantly tweeted in response; “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it!”1 This is the man behind the batteries for a large proportion (17%) of the world’s E.V.s (electric vehicles.)
Such arrogance does nothing to suggest any respect for sovereignty, nor for the earth.
2. Tibetan Plateau
In May 2016 hundreds of protestors in the city of Tagong, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, threw dead fish onto the streets. The dead fish had come from the Liqi River where toxic waste from the Gazizhou Rongda Lithium mine wreaked havoc.2 It had not been the first such instance, with similar episodes stretching back to 2009.
This mine is operated by one of the world’s biggest suppliers of lithium-ion batteries.
3. Western Australia
In 2020 Rio Tinto Group was widely condemned for blowing up and destroying 46,000-year-old sacred (and archeologically significant) caves in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
The Puuta Kunti Kurrama people and Pinikura people who have maintained a respectful relationship with the land on which these caves exist received an apology from Rio Tinto. Tellingly however, the apology did not apologise for the destruction of the caves, stopping short by apologising for the “distress caused.”3
In an attempt to mend the relationship damage done Rio Tinto appointed a person to oversee this process. However, only some six months later this person was removed from that role. The Puuta Kunti Kurrama people and Pinikura people - via the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation - have viewed this as an insult. At the beginning of February 2021, the Chief Executive of PKKP signed a letter to Rio Tinto questioning whether trust in Rio Tinto could ever be realised. The letter went on to say:
“… every action by Rio Tinto to date, including the latest announcement under your leadership rings hollow…PKKP is reluctant to participate in a relationship of this nature any longer.”
E.V. (Electric Vehicles)
There is currently a push to produce E.V.s world-wide. The supposed benefit of these vehicles is that they emit less carbon dioxide (CO2) over their lifetime than do fossil-fuelled vehicles.
Sounds good doesn’t it? Well, not really. As the first two examples above show, the environmental damage from the mining of lithium can be disastrous.
All three examples highlight the harm and hurt done to local, often indigenous, peoples by mining corporations. Even though Rio Tinto were not mining for lithium (they were mining iron ore) the lack of trust in such mining giants is readily apparent. Can we expect them to be trustworthy simply because they are mining minerals that are used for “renewable” purposes?
Questions are being raised within all three of these regions.
Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert at the University of Chile, suggests that “This (lithium batteries) isn’t a green solution – it isn’t a solution at all.”4
A Tibetan website declares that “Green transport in one place should not come at the cost of environmental and social damage in another.”
Questioning from the Puuta Kunti Kurrama people and Pinikura people has already been quoted.
The push for EVs (electric vehicles) leads to environmental damage, social disruption, and a neo-colonisation of indigenous peoples. Electric vehicles do nothing to enhance our relationship with the earth.
It is not the fuel of transportation that we should be focusing upon. We should be asking questions about transportation itself. Whatsmore – we should have been asking such questions some time ago. If we had, we may well have arrived at more suitable answers.
2. Washington Post, 26 December 2016.
3. https://www.riotinto.com/en/news/releases/2020/June-statement-on-Juukan-Gorge Accessed 9-02-2021