Lucas González, Universidad Nacional de San Martín
Lithium is a strategic resource. It is at the core of the transition from fossil to renewable energies. About 80 per cent of lithium reserves are concentrated in the ‘triangle of lithium’, located in the deserts of northern Argentina (Salar de Hombre Muerto), northern Chile (Salar de Atacama), and southern Bolivia (Salar de Uyuni). Argentina is the second world exporter of lithium carbonate. With the expected exports from new production sites, it will be soon close to Chile, the first world exporter.
Production in Argentina is quite recent, but it is booming. It is concentrated in the northwestern provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy, and Salta. These provinces share many historical roots and cultural traditions as well as common economic and institutional (federal) characteristics. Despite these similarities, they have very different models for the extraction and processing of lithium and articulation with social organizations and local indigenous communities. In some cases, there was strong resistance and conflict from local communities and production sites had to be closed. That is the case of Salinas Grandes and Laguna Guayatayoc, in Jujuy. In other localities, production has continued and conflict has largely been avoided, such as in Salar de Olaroz and the Susques community, also in Jujuy.
Why, despite some similarities, there is variation in conflicts with local communities and in the sustainability of production?
Contrary to Catamarca and Salta, where mining operations are in charge of private companies, the provincial state in Jujuy regulates and controls lithium extraction and processing. The Salar de Olaroz-Cachauri in the department of Susques, 4,500 meters above sea level, is the main site for the extraction of lithium in Jujuy. Sales de Jujuy and Minera Exar are the main production sites. The Argentine subsidiary of the Australian transnational mining company Orocobre Limited and the Japanese automaker Toyota Tsusho are responsible for the operations in Sales de Jujuy. The Canadian Lithium Americas Corp. and the Chilean Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile SA operate the Minera Exar project.
After the concessions and the declaration of strategic resource, the Province of Jujuy negotiated with Orocobre and created the state firm Jujuy Energy and Mining State Society (Jujuy Energía y Minería Sociedad del Estado, JEMSE) in 2011. The company got 8.5 per cent of the shares, while the remaining 91.5 per cent is in the hands of the holding company Orocobre (66.5 per cent) and Toyota (25 per cent).
In the case of Olaroz-Caucharí in Jujuy, Orocobre hired a local geologist to decide whether the salt flat was appropriate to exploit lithium, while at the same time he began to make contacts with local communities, preparing the conditions for the company to operate in the region. At the end of 2014, the firm began production, arousing an ambivalent response from the Susques community: while part of its population supported production and decided to take advantage of some of the small economic benefits associated with the activity, another group created the social organization colectivo La Apacheta, which demands the direct participation of local communities in the management, decision, and profits of the company.
With the Provincial Government of Jujuy invested as a partner, the company managed to divide and coopt a part of the local indigenous communities. Still, there is some resistance from La Apacheta. There was a consultation process (consulta previa, or prior consultation) with local communities, where they could decide whether they wanted lithium production in their lands. Local inhabitants meet with representatives from the companies in a local council to get informed about the operations that the company intends to conduct in the area and debate under which conditions they would allow the company to begin them in accordance with International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169, which Argentina ratified in 1992. In spite of the consultation, there are reports from environmental organizations denouncing the consultation process as being rigged and non-transparent, since companies provided unclear information and influenced decisions dividing local inhabitants. Production in Olaroz is growing and it is nowadays the main lithium production site in Jujuy.
On the contrary, communities near the Salinas Grandes were not previously consulted, and strongly resisted the installation of mining firms. In spite of being previously fragmented and dispersed, local communities formed the ‘Mesa de Salinas Grandes and Laguna Guayatayoc’, a local network of 33 local social organizations, and operated in two different fronts: the legal one, filing a case in the provincial judiciary and the federal Supreme Court, and another case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Under the advice of a group of lawyers, they demanded the call for a ‘free and informed prior consultation’ to decide whether they want lithium mining in their territories. The second front included protests, roadblocks, and the occupation of the salt flat. In July 2011, more than 900 community members, representing 86 indigenous communities and peasant organizations, blocked the National Route 52, near Salinas Grandes, to protest against the projects for large-scale lithium mining. With these two strategies, and fundamentally after the Supreme Court ruling, the mining company decided to put production into a halt, at least until the time of writing this article.
Argentina does not have a specific federal regulatory framework for the exploitation of lithium. The national mining regime (Law 24,196) completely deregulated the mining sector, granting companies great benefits for the extraction and processing of minerals. This law eliminated all municipal taxes, establishing royalties at 3 per cent of the pithead price.
On top of a weak federal regulatory framework, the federal Constitution gave provinces control over natural resources and authority to regulate the extraction and processing of oil and minerals. The federal government keeps a minimum jurisdiction to regulate extractive industries, mainly in relation to environmental protection and the participation of indigenous communities in the management of natural resources located in their territories.
A similar legal framework at the federal level cannot explain variation in conflicts and stability of production sites at the community level. The recognition of indigenous rights at the federal level opened up the opportunity for those communities to demand them being respected, but not all communities have been able to do that.
Variation in the provincial legal frameworks that regulate the role of the provincial state in the production process and the recognition of rights to indigenous communities living in production sites may help explaining some of these differences.
There is variation in the role of the provincial state in the production process. The provincial state controls lithium extraction and processing in Jujuy; while production in Salta and Catamarca depends on private companies.
A second important difference among producing provinces is that Jujuy recognized rights to indigenous communities living in production sites, including the legal recognition as indigenous communities and their communal property rights, constituting these groups into legal actors which have to be consulted before any intervention in their territories. Salta and Catamarca denied these rights to indigenous groups in the province, challenging federal regulations on the matter.
Despite these different provincial legal frameworks, there have been protests and conflicts within the same province. That is particularly the case in Jujuy (less so in Catamarca). There were some negotiations in Salar de Olaroz and the Susques community; there has been mobilizations, protests, and conflict in Salinas Grandes and Laguna Guayatayoc.
Federal regulations and variations in provincial legal frameworks in Catamarca, Jujuy, and Salta, cannot explain the different results in terms of stability of production and the existence of conflicts with local indigenous communities within the same provinces.
Possible explanations of these differences within provinces have to include local level variables. Some of the possible local level factors which can account for variations in local resistance and conflict can be, first, the capacity of companies to coopt local leaders and key community members, particularly when communities are more divided in relation to mining. Some companies sought to exploit those divisions, isolating local leaders more radically opposed to mining. A second factor, is that local governments can prevent and manage conflict, promoting consensus, or they can decide to be absent in the process. A third element, particularly relevant when the previous ones are absent, may be the capacity of local communities to organize and articulate at the municipal level and to seek help and legal assistance from provincial, national, and international actors and organizations. When production sites are close to urban communities, local organizations are more likely to be organized. The opposite is the case when production sites are in more isolated rural areas with dispersed populations. The urban and rural divide plays a role in the organizational capacity of local communities. The capacity of local communities to organize can help explaining protests, roadblocks, and the occupation of salt flats; their capacity to seek help and legal assistance, may account for their ability to file cases at the provincial and national level judicial systems.
Argento M and Zícari JN, ‘Las disputas por el litio en la Argentina:¿ materia prima, recurso estratégico o bien común?’ (2017) 19 Prácticas de Oficio 37
Fornillo B (ed), Geopolítica del Litio: Industria, Ciencia y Energía en Argentina (CLACSO and El Colectivo 2015)
—— ‘La energía del litio en Argentina y Bolivia: comunidad, extractivismo y posdesarrollo’ (2018) 93 Colombia Internacional 179
Marchegiani P, Höglund Hellgren J and Gómez L, ‘Lithium Extraction in Argentina: A Case Study on the Social and Environmental Impacts’ (FARN 2019) Puente F and Argento M, ‘Conflictos territoriales y construcción identitaria en los salares del noroeste argentino’ in Bruno Fornillo (ed), Geopolítica del Litio: Industria, Ciencia y Energía en Argentina (CLACSO and El Colectivo 2015)
 Part of this section is taken from an ongoing research by Lucas González and Richard Snyder, ‘Modes of Extraction in the Lithium Triangle: Mining Politics in Catamarca, Jujuy, and Salta’ in Giovanna França, Danilo Freire and Umberto Mignozzetti, ‘Natural Resources and Policy Choices in Latin America’ (Konrad Adenauer Foundation 2021).
 Bruno Fornillo (ed), Geopolítica del Litio: Industria, Ciencia y Energía en Argentina (CLACSO and El Colectivo 2015) 12.
 Pía Marchegiani, Jasmin Höglund Hellgren and Leandro Gómez, ‘Lithium Extraction in Argentina: A Case Study on the Social and Environmental Impacts’ (FARN 2019) 21.
 Bruno Fornillo, ‘La energía del litio en Argentina y Bolivia: comunidad, extractivismo y posdesarrollo’ (2018) 93 Colombia Internacional 179, 194.
 Marchegiani, Höglund Hellgren and Gómez, ‘Lithium Extraction in Argentina’, above.
 Melisa Argento and Julian N Zícari, ‘Las disputas por el litio en la Argentina:¿ materia prima, recurso estratégico o bien común?’ (2017) 19 Prácticas de Oficio 37, 43.
 Fornillo, ‘La energía del litio en Argentina y Bolivia’, above, 193-194.
 Florencia Puente and Melisa Argento, ‘Conflictos territoriales y construcción identitaria en los salares del noroeste argentino’ in Bruno Fornillo (ed), Geopolítica del Litio: Industria, Ciencia y Energía en Argentina (CLACSO and El Colectivo 2015) 119.
 Nacif (2014), quoted in Puente and Argento, ‘Conflictos territoriales y construcción identitaria’, above, 122.
 Marchegiani, Höglund Hellgren and Gómez, ‘Lithium Extraction in Argentina’, above, 10.
 Puente and Argento, ‘Conflictos territoriales y construcción identitaria en los salares del noroeste argentino’, above, 123.