Going Green is Going Nowhere
BY KAMILA PERLA
Brought to you by the AS Office of Environmental Justice Affairs
The movement towards a greener earth has prompted change by big corporations and companies to ‘Go Green’. One of the many ways has been by mining lithium — a mineral deemed “white gold” for its versatility in manufacturing many electronic products (including electronic vehicles). However, the increase in demand for more electronic products has caused the continued exploitation of areas that are primarily located near Indigenous communities. Although the premise of increasing electronic products aims to reduce carbon emissions, the practice of mining lithium causes many environmental issues with water usage, as evaporation pools are necessary in the process. The voices of the Indigenous communities impacted fall on deaf ears as they continue their protests and campaigns in order to put a stop to the construction of these mines. As a result, going green is inherently going nowhere as the means of mining and exporting lithium outweighs any positives of manufacturing more electronic products.
Climate change is an ongoing issue, one that many are trying to solve through the implementation of green technology to reduce carbon emissions. ‘Going Green’ has become a campaign many corporations have begun to support in order to place their names on the movement towards clean energy. Reporting shows that between 80-90% of consumers are more likely to buy from a company that leans towards being more environmentally conscious. There are many positive aspects that come from the market becoming more selective of which brands achieve attention. By gaining notoriety in supporting environmental issues, these companies have an incentive to reduce their waste and emissions in exchange for expanding their markets.
However, there is still a sense of superficiality in the ‘push for change’. Many of these corporations still prioritize dollar signs when converting their electricity to solar power or supporting the construction of wind turbines. Overall, the green movement is dominated by a certain group of individuals, namely those with more privilege and of a higher class who have the time and resources to dedicate themselves to this movement. Although there is a portion of support that comes from marginalized communities, the fact that environmentalism is overwhelmingly white cannot be overlooked. Activists from marginalized groups do not receive the same notoriety for joining the movement or for speaking out against it in areas where it is lacking. The main issue we are bringing to light in this case study is the omission of Indigenous voices in the construction of lithium mines that supply corporations with the resources for green/hybrid vehicle batteries to reduce carbon emissions.
Lithium is a non-renewable mineral that is primarily used in creating renewable energy sources such as powerful batteries for smartphones, laptops, electric/hybrid cars, etc. It has been labeled as “white gold” due to its exponential demand by corporations as well as its status as the symbol of shifting the world’s dependence on fossil fuels to clean/renewable energy sources. These corporations that rely heavily on lithium highlight the many benefits of using lithium-powered batteries and portray it as the future of our green revolution. Excitement and demand for lithium have led corporations to disregard the damaging effects of mining on the environment and the omission of the concerned voices of Indigenous communities who reside in these areas.
The main environmental concern regarding lithium mining in Indigenous lands is the amount of water that this industry uses. It is estimated that “a ton of lithium generally requires as much as 500,000 gallons of water.” The lithium extraction process will intensify an urgent water shortage issue among many Indigenous communities which will greatly affect agriculture and home lives as well. The extraction process also involves massive evaporation pools needed to concentrate the lithium that creates risks of groundwater contamination. The already limited groundwater sources can become exposed to chemicals, salts, and other minerals that make it toxic.
(Saltwater evaporation pools in Bolivia for the evaporation process. Photo sourced from BBC News)
A recent case that exposes these issues is the Thacker Pass lithium project being completed in the state of Nevada. Thacker Pass is the biggest known lithium source in the U.S. and is a mining project organized by a corporation named Lithium Americas. The site is located on sacred land for the Paiute and Shoshone people. In the late 1800s, U.S. soldiers killed “...dozens of Indigenous people… including women and children, leaving behind a burial ground with deep spiritual significance.” The following generations have honored their ancestors and this site through ceremonies as well as by continuing to use this land for hunting and foraging. The combined efforts of the Indigenous people to protect this sacred land from the mining project have been met with many difficult legal battles. This is unfortunately common in historical cases that involved efforts to protect indigenous lands, setting precedent for new cases. Lawsuits created by local tribes and environmental groups have failed thus far in attempting to stop this project from moving forward.
(Encampment at Thacker Pass. Photo sourced from Sierra Nevada Ally, taken by Max Wilbert)
The lack of legal protections for sacred Indigenous lands is more evident than ever. The few laws that currently exist, such as the National Historic Preservation Act (which protects culturally and religiously significant Native lands) and the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (which protects spiritual rights), have failed to stop the digging and mining process. Cases like these reveal how legal systems currently in place allow big corporations to complete massive projects without the informed consent of Indigenous communities being affected. The complete disregard and level of disrespect shown towards Indigenous communities and their land is an issue that has gone on for far too long.
(Lithium Triangle: source: Dialogo Chino)
In other regions like the South American Lithium Triangle, construction of these mines opened another source for companies like Neo Lithium to exploit and take advantage of. Interest in the region emerged in 2016 when the corporation began an exploration project named Tres Quebradas in Catamarca, Argentina. The corporation expanded the project to the construction of a lithium mine under the banner of ‘sustainability’ and the transition to "green energy." Similar to other business endeavors concocted by western corporations, consultation was absent with the Indigenous communities that would be greatly affected by the mine. Local people like Johana Villagran feared “the contamination of water, the risk of losing our production, the local fauna and flora.” Individuals including Johana observed the adverse effects in the construction of lithium mines and the danger they brought to the environment under the guise of aiding the green revolution. An article with a "snapshot" about Neo Lithium states, “they are focused on the green energy revolution and addressing the growing demand for lithium generated by the growth in the electric vehicle (EV) market and, more generally, new generation batteries.” The article also contains information regarding a deal with the “Chinese mining titan Zijin Mining Group,” with the group aiming to “buy the firm and the project for a total of US$960 million.” The emphasis regions close to the Tres Quebradas project have on ecotourism and living off the land have become endangered by this project and others like it which aim to "be at the forefront of green technology."
Protest by local indigenous people battling the construction of the mine in Fiambala (Town in the Catamarca Province). (Photo sourced from Dialogo Chino and taken by Richard Bauer)
The lithium mine that was constructed in the Catamarca Province by Neo Lithium (Photo sourced from Prensanoa)
Unlike the platforms available to activists in the United States for creating policies to regulate the construction of these mines and the exploitation of land, Latin American activists largely remain without a platform and voice. From the institution of Banana Republic to the maquiladoras bordering the United States, the similarity is clear when it comes to the lithium mines that also claim to serve a bigger purpose. The omission of Indigenous voices and concerns solidifies the continued stunt in progress many countries experience. The business endeavors these corporations have explored in areas like the Lithium Triangle highlight the facade many of them put on to play into what society needs: a move towards a greener earth. But the technocentric approach we take results in a continuous cycle that plays into the world market as another source for capital.
The environmental movement involves many needed changes within our society, especially in reducing carbon emissions. Corporations have undergone some development in an attempt to insert themselves into the green movement with advancements in technology. Despite the green movement having positive intentions in pushing corporations towards 100% clean energy in the eyes of corporations, the incentives become skewed as they set their eyes on increasing their capital. This leads to the exploitation we see happening in regions like the United States and Latin America, which disregard the voice of Indigenous communities that are impacted the most. Sadly, this situation can be mirrored internationally in zones that have copious amounts of lithium. Overall, the "white gold rush" is negatively impacting the environment, and without a sustainable alternative, it will continue to do so as long as it retains its title as the fuel for the “green revolution.”