Lithium, protests erupt in Argentina

Lithium, protests erupt in Argentina


The ecological transition? Easier to imagine than to make. New technologies overturn the hierarchy of the most requested materials, such as lithium, redefine priorities for governments, create headaches. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile are the vertices of an imaginary "lithium triangle", essential for the batteries of electric cars and mobile phones. Almost unused until after the Second World War, the metal has become a real, unexpected boon for those who possess precious reserves (in addition to the South American states, there is also China). For others, however, it is one of the many geopolitical puzzles of recent years.

From the combustion engine to the electric one, the paradigm shift will help solve the problem of greenhouse emissions. But mining always has a price in environmental and economic terms. “The reduction of costs and the increase in global demand have enormously increased the extraction of this very light but very powerful metal with potential implications for the environment ”, wrote Marco Tedesco, professor of marine geology and geophysics at Columbia Climate School, in an article that appeared in Repubblica : " The risk is that, in running once again towards easy and low-cost solutions that do not take into account the impact on the environment, we create problems as big as those we try to solve ". And they can become huge for local communities.

The lithium brine

Thirty-third most abundant element on Earth, lithium does not always occur in solid form. It is estimated that the oceans can contain, dissolved, 230 billion tons. Too diluted to be recovered efficiently, although experiments in this direction are underway. But there is another option. Very ancient lakes that have now evaporated have left behind them a sort of crust of salts rich in various minerals: this layer also contains a certain percentage of lithium, which can be recovered where the concentrations make the operation economically interesting.

To proceed, a technique called Direct lithium extraction (Dle) is used: in practice, water is injected underground, in order to create a brine that can be pumped to the surface, where it is left to evaporate in huge ponds. It can take up to two years to arrive at a second, much more concentrated blend, from which the various elements can be separated with relative ease. Processing can take place on site, but the solution can be transported via pipelines to refining centers located elsewhere.

Lots of space and too much water

At first glance, Dle has a lower environmental impact than the monstrous open pit mines. But it poses two problems: the first is the need for large spaces for the enormous ponds, which can reach the surface of a medium-sized city. Sometimes the endless stretches of artificial water created ad hoc for the brines ruin territories that have become famous thanks to the spectacular landscapes they are able to offer: a dazzling white, which extends as far as the eye can see and contrasts with the clear blue of the sky , as happens in the Salinas Grandes, a territory in northern Argentina, not far from the border with Chile. Stretching over 600 square kilometers between the provinces of Jujuy and Salta, they are a renowned tourist destination at over 3,450 meters above sea level which provides work and livelihoods to the populations who have inhabited them for centuries.

The second problem is that of water. In these areas it rains little (which is a positive factor for the Dle). But 2,000 liters are needed to extract a ton of lithium.

Protests against lithium extraction

The inhabitants of the Salinas Grandes have long since taken the path of protest. On hearing the news that the government of Buenos Aires has issued new concessions, representatives of thirty-three indigenous communities met in San Salvador de Jujuy on January 13 to coordinate. To provide strategic, legal support and the necessary visibility, a group of lawyers, sociologists, activists led by Tomàs Saraceno, one of the main living Argentine artists, now residing in Berlin but still very close to his country of origin.

Saraceno has been dealing with ecological issues for years, creating works at the crossroads between art and science. With a curriculum that boasts exhibitions at the Venice Biennale and in New York, in 2015 he gave life to Aerocene, a collective that mixes visual research and climate activism with performances around the world based on gigantic balloons capable of flying without the aid of fossil fuels or gas. and which bear emblematic writings on the hottest topics of the green debate.

Dates back to 2020 what he calls "the most sustainable flight in the history of mankind": Pacha, a sort of hot air balloon piloted by a woman, flew for an hour and a quarter at 275 meters above the ground, covering a distance of almost two kilometers in the Salinas Grandes region. On her tarpaulin, an enormous inscription: "Water is life", a clear reference to the mines.

“Pacha flew without the use of fossil fuels, solar panels, lithium, helium, hydrogen and carbon emissions - says Saraceno to, connected by his Berlin studio -. She exclusively uses the heat provided directly by the sun and the infrared radiation that comes from the Earth ”. This is not an engineering proposal for a new means of transport: the movement of the balloon depends on the wind conditions and cannot be controlled. “ It is rather an invitation to reflect on our consumption and to think about the energy we have. Perhaps the sense of guilt for the too many miles I have flown in my life also has something to do with it ”.

Disassembling the cell phone

The lithium game, according to Saraceno, is not worth the candle. Better to recycle it. As, for example, does Fairphone , which produces cell phones that are easy to disassemble to replace batteries and cameras, made of recycled plastic and with gold purchased from ethical producers. And with a policy that aims to produce net zero e-waste by offsetting all raw materials used in construction through the collection of used devices.

“ Violence is not only in extracting data - concludes Saraceno, in a parallel with the information technology of the web giants - but also in raping the Earth to get the materials we need. My hope for the future? We will do with technology as with plastic bags, cigarettes and alcohol: responsible consumption, and a design that allows the devices to be disassembled and the precious raw materials hidden inside to be recovered".

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