South American correspondent
Village leader Mario Geronimo proudly walks in front of a construction site in the village of Olaroz in the Jujuy province of northern Argentina. Construction workers working on the roof of a house under the bright sun. Moreover, roads and bridges are being built.
The village is surrounded by vast white salt plains, where tons of lithium are stored. This year, an estimated 120,000 tons could be extracted in this province.
The demand for lithium is growing dramatically due to the global energy transition, because it is the raw material for electric car batteries. China, the United States, Russia, Canada and Europe: they are all searching for lithium and their eyes are on this region.
They pollute soil, water and air. Animals die from water intoxication.
If it were up to the village leader, Geronimo, this small village would turn into an increasingly larger place. “We believe lithium will bring a lot of development to our area,” he says. “Our ideal goal is to eventually grow into a real city.”
The region is located in the so-called Lithium Triangle: the borders with Chile, Bolivia and Argentina where an estimated 56 percent of the world’s lithium reserves are stored.
Far-right Argentine President Javier Miley, who took office in December 2023, wants to give foreign companies every opportunity. Argentina needs money, because the country is suffering from a deep economic crisis. Inflation has risen to 200 percent and 40 percent of Argentines live in poverty.
Much needed income
Exporting lithium from this resource-rich region could help raise much-needed income for the country. It is better for foreign companies to source lithium from Argentina because there is a low export tax of about 4 percent. In Chile and Bolivia, production is mainly in the hands of the government, while Miley supports a completely free market and as little government intervention as possible.
Nearly eighty new lithium projects are planned to be implemented in Argentina in the coming years, with investments amounting to approximately $20 billion in various development stages.
But not everyone in the region thinks the same way. Beyond the salt flats is an impressive mountainous landscape with a small camp where indigenous people sit around a fire. Opponents of lithium mining have gathered here, because they fear it will have dire consequences for the unique region.
Activist Patricia Cruz throws some herbs into the fire and calls out Pacha Mama, Mother Earth. Toxic substances are released during lithium extraction. According to her, the effect of this is already noticeable. “It has an impact on the plants and animals in our area,” she says. “It pollutes the soil, water and air. Animals die due to water poisoning.”
The indigenous group is rarely heard from. The county governor has given lithium companies a lot of space for a long time and now that Miley is in power, residents believe the area will be completely taken over by mining. “In ten years there will be no life here anymore,” predicts Patricia Cruz. “It will then be a big, dry area.”
“Very good future”
In the village of Olaroz, they are optimistic about the future. The village leader is proud of the developments the village is witnessing. The technical high school, where students are trained to later work in lithium companies, is one of the masterpieces. The school is jointly funded by mining companies.
The students hope that after their studies, they will find work in one of the lithium companies in the region, so that they do not have to travel longer hours to the provincial capital. “We learn subjects like biology and chemistry here, in short: everything we need to become good technicians,” says 15-year-old Lucas Cruz. “I think we have a very good future.” It will be completed within two years, after which he hopes to be able to begin work.
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