All photos: Susi Maresca
This article originally appeared on VICE en Español.One of the more bitter ironies of life today is the fact that renewable energy requires non-renewable sources. Transitioning to a cleaner, more sustainable way of living can often muddy the environmental waters – quite literally in some cases.Take lithium: Used predominantly for rechargeable ion batteries, which help power everything from laptops to solar panels to electric vehicles, it’s seen by many as crucial in the green energy revolution.
Though it’s often advertised as "clean energy", the extraction of lithium involves both the overconsumption of water sources and the use of pollution-causing chemicals.At the site of one of South America’s most valuable lithium deposits, the lofty ideals of the renewable near-future are colliding with the community-eroding problems of the present.
Operated by American company Livent, the Fenix lithium mine began extracting materials in 1998. Sitting in the Salar del Hombre Muerto (Dead Man’s Salt Flat) in Antofagasta de la Sierra, a village in the Catamarca province of north-western Argentina, the site currently produces around 16,500 tonnes of lithium a year, exporting the mineral to the company’s plants in the U.S. and China. Argentina is expected to become the world’s second largest producer of the resource by 2027.The salt pan is vital to the work that Livent and seven other lithium extracting companies are currently carrying out in the area. Brine is extracted from the pan, then taken to “evaporation ponds” to obtain a brine concentrate ready to be processed. Nearby rivers provide the fresh water used to process it. The lagoons that underpin the area’s ecosystem are at threat due to the mining.
The pan is also home to the Diaguita, an Indigenous people native to this part of the country. The pan – once a place of exchange between communities, and the provider of a good that was traded for wool, meat, and vegetables – is rapidly running out of the very thing crucial to both itself and its community’s future: salt.
This infrastructural dependency on finite resources — resources that have long-since played a part of the Indigenous community’s day-to-day lives — has led to a situation where residents complain of lacking basic services, and paying extortionate electricity and water rates. Now they’re noticing increasing levels of pollution.Contrary to a supra-legal convention ratified in 2000, the Diaguita community are not being consulted properly on legislative or administrative measures pertaining to them and their land. Argentinian law says that communities of this kind must be consulted ahead of any kind of extraction process beginning. Verónica Gostissa, a lawyer specialising in environmental law, tells us that no such hearing – involving either members of the Indigenous community or the residents of Antofagasta de la Sierra – took place.
The effects are being felt across the plains. Camilo Condorí is a 63-year-old man who wants to die where he’s spent all his life. The Livent plant is 1,000 metres away from his house and the company is desperate to move him on so there’s more room for their operations. They’ve already divided his land with a motorway and fenced off the road that connects it to his family’s house. To visit his mother’s home he has to seek permission from Livent.
So far, Condorí has turned down all of the company’s offers for the land – despite the fact the well he’s drawn water from his entire life is now part of an emerald-green lagoon of waste. The animals that once grazed here are dying, slowly killed by the pollution that contaminates the lagoons — contamination which Livent steadfastly refuses to acknowledge as existing.
A road crosses his near-neighbour Roman Guitián’s land, and the land of his ancestors, too. In fact, the salt pan is named after human remains found decades ago by his great-grandfather. “These are ancestral lands,” says Guitián. “Many generations of my family have lived here all their lives. They lived and died here. They are here.”
For another resident, Eli Mamani, the pressing issue isn’t land or a link to the past. She’s the mother of an 11-month-old girl who was born with a heart malformation. Dali, her daughter, was a “very bright and playful girl,” but after the heart defect was spotted, they both traveled to the province of Salta for treatment. “A doctor asked me if I lived near a mine,” Mamani says. “When I told him that I did, he said that this was possibly the cause of Dali’s problems. He said studies that examined the consequences of contaminated waters are hidden from the public but that doctors are seeing more and more similar cases in the area.”
Stories like this abound in the Salar del Hombre Muerto – they don’t want mega-mining on their doorstep. As corporations close in on this part of Argentina hoping to provide a better future for the planet, locals are seeing their world shrink.