JERICÓ, Colombia - From an outcrop of rock on Ariel Velasquez’s coffee farm, you can hear a waterfall blast out of a giant rock face. Its foamy spray is the main attraction for coffee tourists who come here. The scenery is stunning. Slender nogal trees balance perfectly like pencils on the rocky mountain face. A meditative buzz from hummingbirds, troupials and chachalaca birds rises and falls.
It is beneath this virgin landscape that a company called Anglo Gold Ashanti wants to dig for copper, a metal that will be key for the clean energy revolution and electric vehicles driven by commuters from China to the U.S. and Europe.
“It would be so sad to see that waterfall dry up,” says Velasquez, the 36-year-old farmer during a visit by VICE World News in Jericó, a town about three hours’ drive west of Medellín, Colombia. There’s thick red mud on his black rubber boots, and a harsh five o’clock shadow wrapped around his face.
“If the mine does happen, the land will dry out and this farm will be worth nothing. The tourists will stop coming. We’ll be ruined.”
Except Velasquez might not have much of a choice as the clean energy revolution heats up. The combination of COVID-19 and Joe Biden’s presidency have accelerated a trend to shift away from internal combustion engines and carbon pollution, and move toward renewable energy sources like wind and solar, as well as battery engines. This has been dubbed ‘cleantech,’ a perceived climate-saving phenomenon that comfortably satisfies liberal political sectors across the world. The thing is, the more Biden, the European Union and China push for folks to switch out their internal combustion engines for battery-powered cars and solar panels, the more cleantech metals will be needed to manufacture them.
On December 20th, Biden promised that as president we would “put America on a path to achieve a carbon-pollution free electricity sector by 2035.”
Billionaire Silicon Valley investor Chamath Palihapitiya, a cleantech entrepreneur, immediately responded. “If so, we will need a lot of rare earth metals to make this happen.”
Demand for metals like copper and lithium is set to pick up as the clean energy revolution gets rolling, according to a report by Carbon Brief, a non-profit. Latin America’s rich natural resource wealth is a prime target. In Chile, U.S. and Chinese companies already mine copper and lithium. A Chinese miner is developing a lithium mine in the Sonora desert in northern Mexico. Brazil is filled with rare earth metals like niobium, an alternative to cobalt – which is a metal used in electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing. EVs – like those made by Tesla - use significant amounts of copper for conducting electricity and powering the car. Lithium is used in the batteries that drive them. In Colombia, Anglo Gold Ashanti’s interest in the copper embedded under Velasquez’s farm is the latest chapter in a literal “gold rush” for clean tech metals.
But the increased mining of the fragile ecosystems on which Velasquez’s farm and livelihood depends could be severely endangered as a result.
“Mining metals for these vehicles has a lot of concerning effects. For example, the Atacama desert in Chile is the second-driest place on earth and [the mining process is] taking out water from the system. You’re basically evaporating it in order to concentrate the lithium,” explains Thea Riofrancos, a political scientist at Providence College who studies the environmental and social impacts of clean energy.
“There’s also an effect of lowering the water table. That water table is also being severely affected by copper mining too. Both these extractive sectors put tremendous stress on the water systems of the Atacama desert, which is already a water vulnerable area.”
In Jericó, triangular greenhouses cover the rippling green landscape. Within are rows of galupa, an exotic fruit grown for export to international markets. Bushy avocado trees speckle the landscape in neat, polka dot patterns. Citrus crops and coffee spread across the mountains like blankets. Water is this town’s lifeblood, argue its farmers. Without it, the kind of agro-tourism they want to build is impossible.
Anglo Gold Ashanti has patiently waited to open up this copper mine, conducting rigorous reviews of the environmental impact and promising state of the art recovery of the impacted ecosystems. The mine will be subterranean; not an open pit monster like those such as Chile’s Escondida copper project. “We’ve been in Jericó for 14 years and after years of studies we’ve found copper of very high quality. We want to turn that into social, environmental and economic progress for the region and the country,” said a spokesperson from the company. Anglo Gold Ashanti acknowledged that the area around Velasquez’s farm is part of the impacted zone of the planned mine but pledges that it will not affect the water dynamics on which coffee farmers depend.
Still, the locals are not convinced that it can be avoided. Further down the mountain, Anglo Gold Ashanti plans to pile up heaps of tailings, the leftover material from mining copper, gold and silver. Tailings stored along the Cauca river basin could mean a toxic leak out over time. In the near term, folks in this town - where homicides are nearly unheard of in a broadly violent nation - are afraid that the mine will bring in criminals notorious for digging illegally in the areas around formal mining sites.
Latin America is notorious for archaic regulations governing environmental practices. Barring some recent progress on better regulations, what is written into the law is often unenforced or at best weakly enforced, according to a recent Inter-American Development Bank report on environmental governance. The report found that Colombia’s extractive industry leaves the most severe mark on the environment compared to its Latin American neighbors.
Whatever happens in Colombia, Biden’s clean energy plan is unlikely to encounter many hurdles in a Democrat-led congress. The president has talked about spending two trillion dollars on a clean energy plan. This is Biden’s bid to revive the U.S. rust belt, a region hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs. EV manufacturing is key for creating jobs in a pandemic-slammed economy. He joins many experts in believing that this is the main way to fight climate change, but it is a strategy not without its own environmental and social consequences.
“If I were advising him, first of all, the question is how to electrify transit in a way that’s less resource-intensive,” says Riofrancos. “I think the first step is to not emphasize individual car ownership. The more cars you have on the road, the harder it is to decarbonize because you need more electric vehicles to replace traditional vehicles. The more we can get people in the same vehicle - like buses, trollies - the more we can massify transit, the more efficient our resource use becomes.”
That could solve the problem of use. But the reality, Riofrancos adds, is that without strict international regulations governing from whom and where cleantech minerals should happen, it’s very possible that Biden’s way could do Latin America’ fragile ecosystems more harm than good. The likes of Anglo Gold Ashanti may create jobs and generate profits in the short term, but there will be little trickle down to locals left battling the environmental costs alone.
At his coffee farm in Jericó, Velasquez collapses into a plastic chair on his red and yellow porch. Behind him, the Cauca river glistens. He remembers when the Brazilian dam filled with iron tailings – Brumadinho - broke in 2019 and flooded villagers. Over 250 died. Velasquez saw the thick, blood red muddy river explode across a verdant landscape on television. It’s the same blood red of the mud on his boots. It haunts him.
“We don’t want to take these kinds of risks,” he says. “We’re happy here. And if we lose our water, our farm won’t have life. And that means that my livelihood is dead.”