Lithium, niobium, coltan: technological metals destroy Latin American ecosystems for a cleaner world

Generations of Bolivians have mined salt on the Salar de Uyuni. Now it is the site of lithium extraction (image: Luca Galuzzi)The remote Amazon, the Bolivian highlands, and
the Sonoran desert in Mexico are rich in culture and biodiversity on one hand,
and in geological endowments on the other.

Some estimates put Latin America’s
combined reserves of these elements at 50 million tonnes, or roughly 40% of
known global supply. Mining technology metals presents a conundrum:  is
the sacrifice of local environments and livelihoods a fair price to pay for the
proliferation of clean energy technologies?

Technology metals are so named because they are
essential for modern technology as we know it, and are indispensable to the
transition to clean energy technology. The practices of mining companies are as
diverse as the landscapes they excavate.

Mining companies from around the world
have hastened to mine the lithium in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Mexico to produce the batteries essential
for electric cars, wind turbines, and other technologies.

For several decades,
Brazil’s certified niobium mine in the state of Minas Gerais
has supplied most of the world’s energy efficient vehicles, steel structures,
and airplanes with these super-alloys.

Coltan, informally extracted in
Colombia, is a crucial input into mobile phones, while several small-scale
mining cooperatives have high hopes for the rare earth elements believed to be
in the alluvial clay deposits of the Brazilian Amazon.

Primary or minimally processed materials have been pulled from the subsoil of Latin America, shipped to factories operated by foreign companies in East Asia, and then exported in the form of batteries, solar panels, magnets, and information technologies.

In many cases, the components for the
technologies that will power our clean energy transitions have been produced
outside of the region, in places like China. This means that primary or
minimally processed materials have been pulled from the subsoil of Latin
America, shipped to factories operated by foreign companies in East Asia, and
then exported in the form of batteries, solar panels, magnets, and information
technologies.

In some cases, these components make intermediate stops in
assembly facilities in Southeast Asia, such as those operated by Interplex
Holdings in
Singapore, which sells electro-mechanical components to electric vehicle (EV)
manufacturer Tesla, before hitting consumer markets in more affluent parts of
the globe, including in Latin America’s major metropolises. Latin
America’s position as exporter of raw materials and importer of finished
technologies traps its economies in a dynamic of declining terms of trade,
where the value of their exports are consistently lower than the value of their
imports.

This context is important. Although China’s
direct demand for South America’s technology metals grabs
headlines, it is driven
by global demand for clean energy and information technologies.

This means that
the lifecycles of our technologies are far from clean. This should not be
interpreted as an argument against the widespread deployment of clean energy
technologies, which should have happened two decades ago. These elements are
also used to refine petroleum, stabilise nuclear reactors, and generate
hydropower.

Ensuring that clean energy generation is truly
clean requires a shift in the status quo of resource extraction. It must be led
by societies in which extraction is taking place and supported by the
international community.

Rapid exploitation is seen as the solution to so many problems: national development, the global climate crisis, regional stability, to name a few.

This is a tall order, not least because myths of
hitting it big with a 21st century El Dorado remain surprisingly pervasive
among international firms, elected officials, major financial institutions, and
small-scale informal prospectors.

It is significant that technology metals are
often compared to gold – white gold, the new gold, or 21st century gold –,
reflecting a get-rich-quick mentality in which only the boldest will capture
untold treasures lying beneath some of the most important and iconic
environments of the world. Rapid exploitation is seen as the solution to so
many problems: national development, the global climate crisis, regional
stability, to name a few.

These are the contemporary variants of
the El Dorado myth. Elected officials invoke the importance of
satisfying China’s resource demand as the key to greater prosperity. The
methods proposed overwhelmingly resemble 20th century green field mining
projects, in which forests must be felled, ponds drained, and indigenous people
removed from their ancestral lands to get the goods.

Taken together with growing demand for technology metals to combat climate change, the contemporary El Dorado myth is as powerful as ever.

From Brazil to Bolivia to
Mexico, the most extreme advocates of destructive mining deploy a particular
nationalistic twist: any cause that attempts to stop the wholesale destruction
of vital environments is an affront to the nation’s sovereign right to develop.

Small scale miners have seized on this sentiment, positioning themselves at the
front lines of national progress as the most risk-ready adventurers prepared to
penetrate new places and find new resources to power national development.
Taken together with growing demand for technology metals to combat climate
change, the contemporary El Dorado myth is as powerful as ever.

Too often, this is presented as an inevitable
conflict: laudable global moves toward clean technology deployment have the
unfortunate cost of literally undermining rural and indigenous livelihoods
unfolding atop the technology metals deposits.

This common David-and-Goliath
framing tacitly accepts that some environments will have to be destroyed to
provide the raw materials required for a more clean energy technology to
sustain the climate, while leaving it up to vulnerable communities to fend for
themselves. However, a growing body of research shows disrupting business as
usual is not only in the interest of local livelihoods, but also broader
planetary wellbeing. The ecosystems that sustain – and are sustained by – rural
and indigenous communities are vital to maintaining larger global systems of
climate stability.

The proliferation of cleaner technologies is essential to climate mitigation and adaptation. But if the social and environmental cost of sourcing them aggravates climate change, then what is to be done?

This deepens the conundrum: if climate stability
is the ultimate goal, and clean technologies are the means to that end, then
technology metals are indispensable. The proliferation of cleaner technologies
is essential to climate mitigation and adaptation. But if the social and environmental
cost of sourcing them aggravates climate change, then what is to be done?

Fortunately, exciting breakthroughs in flexible
mining – the practice of smelting metal-bearing wastes with “traditional” ores
-, tailings reprocessing, and recycling and recovering technology metals from
electronic waste, promise a future of mining that leaves the social and
environmental violence of the enterprise in the past.

Researchers and firms in
South America are pioneering these developments, sometimes independently, other
times in partnership with researchers in North America, Europe, and China.
Technology metals are abundant in the existing mine wastes that dot the
continent from earlier eras of iron, aluminum, gold, silver, niobium, and
phosphate extraction. Reprocessing these wastes would have the triple bonus of
reducing existing sources of pollution and protecting sensitive areas from new
mining operations, while meeting growing global demand.

Public and private entities in South America
must lead these processes, and consuming economies in the rest of the world
must support them. The bad news is that there is considerable resistance to a
more just and sustainable model of resource extraction and existing extractive
interests are difficult to dislodge.

This is in part because large-scale mining
serves broader geopolitical interests, in part because of a lack of
alternatives for small-scale miners, and in part because of persistent market
signals that accept only the lowest price, regardless of environmental impacts.
All of this brings colonial-era dynamics into the present, in which global
elites meet their resource and technology needs at the cost of Latin American
landscapes and lives.

Ensuring that clean technology is truly clean through the course of its entire lifecycle is essential to building a sustainable future.

The good news is that alternative models are
already being developed. What they need is policy support. Everyone has a role
to play in coordinating interests across global space to “green” the entire
lifecycle of clean energy technologies. Latin American economies can support
and expand cutting edge recovery practices, sanction large and small-scale
miners who harm vital landscapes and lives, and invest in value added
processing to generate more revenues at home.

For China, this means sharing
expertise in environmental remediation in order to prevent the recurrence of environmental disasters on its mining
frontiers in Latin America. For major global market players, including
technology firms and their subcontracting networks, this means holding their
suppliers accountable for socially and environmentally sound practices.

Ensuring that clean technology is truly clean
through the course of its entire lifecycle is essential to building a
sustainable future.

_____________________

This article was previously published by Diálogo chino.

 

 

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