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BUENOS AIRES, Mar 29 2012 (IPS) - Native communities in northwest Argentina turned to the Supreme Court to claim their right to be consulted about projects for prospecting and mining of lithium, regarded as the mineral of the future, located under an enormous salt flat.
Representatives of 33 indigenous communities living in the vicinity of Salinas Grandes, huge salt deserts that spread over more than 17,000 square km of the provinces of Jujuy and Salta, made their case before the national Supreme Court on Wednesday Mar. 28.
For the last two years, 26 communities in Jujuy and six in Salta have been demanding an explanation from the authorities about plans to mine lithium, which the mining ministry believes will be the star mineral of the next 50 years.
Lithium is used to make rechargeable batteries for laptop computers, cell phones, digital audio and video players and other hi-tech products. It is also a component of electric cars, which run without the fossil fuels responsible for global warming.
Mineral compounds containing lithium are abundant in a vast region in southern Bolivia, northwest Argentina and northern Chile, which Forbes magazine calls “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.” This area is thought to contain 85 percent of global lithium reserves.
Salinas Grandes is a fragile ecosystem, extending over the Guayatayoc lake basin. A large number of Kolla and Atacama indigenous communities whose livelihood depends on salt claim it as their ancestral territory.
The Supreme Court summoned them to a public hearing in Buenos Aires on Mar. 28, which was attended by representatives and members of the communities, their lawyers and the provincial attorney-general of Jujuy, Alberto Matuk.
The attorney-general said the provincial government has not licensed any exploration or exploitation of lithium in the area occupied by the 33 communities, although it has issued licences for borate extraction, but on land outside the territory claimed by the plaintiffs.
With respect to borate mining, one community living in the area had been consulted, and to allay its fears about possible environmental harm, an impact study carried out by the mining firm had been presented, Matuk said.
Questioned by the judges, Matuk admitted it was true that companies have requested permission to explore for lithium and the government of Jujuy province “is analysing” the applications, but he stated that the communities would be consulted first, before any permits are issued.
However, Alicia Chalabe, one of the lawyers for the indigenous communities, told the court that several firms are posting on their websites that they are already operating in the area, with prospecting licences from the province.
She also stated that she never received a written answer from the provincial court that handles mining matters to her request for information in this regard. She was only given a verbal reply that no licence had been issued.
“We are demanding a consultation procedure that is not carried out by the companies, as has happened so far, but by the state. And the communities must give their consent,” Chalabe told IPS after the Supreme Court hearing.
During her arguments, the judges interrupted Chalabe to ask her for a concrete definition of the communities’ demands, since according to the provincial government, no company has yet been licensed to explore for lithium.
“Do you maintain that the state should ask for permission from native people, and that they have the right to refuse authorisation? Or are you asking for participation, while letting the state decide?” the president of the Supreme Court, Ricardo Lorenzetti, asked.
Chalabe replied, “We maintain that without the consent of the 33 communities, their collectively used land cannot be used for exploration or exploitation,” whether or not other communities have given consent.
Liborio Flores spoke on behalf of the plaintiffs. “We are descended from native people and thanks to our cultural identity it is easier for us to live in a dry, remote region, without adequate services or communications,” he said.
Flores told four Supreme Court judges that the communities in Salinas Grandes keep llamas and sheep, make handicrafts, and store water in the hills and valleys of upland areas for irrigating the vegetables they grow for their own consumption.
But the main traditional economic activity is salt mining. “Our grandparents used to cut blocks of salt, load them on donkeys and travel for 30 days to trade them,” Flores said.
With global demand for lithium soaring, mining companies began to come to the salt flats, he said. They dig holes, sully the salt flats, build embankments, and contaminate the freshwater aquifers with salt.
“They never consulted us about the projects that were being planned. Some companies explained the plans to a few families, offering them work, and that caused divisions in our community,” Flores complained.
The indigenous leader said the native communities want to preserve their cultural identity, but to do so they need to keep their territory. After he spoke in the hearing, he told IPS he was pleased to have been heard by the court.
“It was an opportunity to say what we feel about our situation,” he said. “The Jujuy government says it has not granted any licences, but it has received applications, and if it is delaying authorisation, that is because we have organised ourselves.”
Chalabe said she did not know why the Supreme Court had not summoned the provincial government of Salta, which is also being sued, and is implicated to a greater extent because it has allegedly issued exploration licences in areas inhabited by native communities.
In these areas, according to Chalabe, at least 47 perforations for lithium and borate have been drilled by the Orocobre company, and according to a study commissioned by indigenous organisations, the areas are already being contaminated.
The study, titled “Consideraciones ambientales en relación con la construcción de pozos de prospección minera y/o hidrogeológica en las Salinas Grandes” (Environmental aspects of drilling wells for mining or hydrogeology prospecting in Salinas Grandes) says the perforations “are causing impacts and endangering the surface salt water and aquifers.”
This study was cited by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, in his December 2011 report sent to the Argentine Supreme Court in support of the suit by the 33 indigenous communities, after he had personally visited Salinas Grandes.
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