The government of the northern Argentinian province of Jujuy recently passed a constitutional reform, one of the central aims of which is to create a legal regulatory framework to hand further lithium mining rights to multinational corporations. While indigenous communities were denouncing the reform, which was passed without full public disclosure, the province’s teachers went on strike for over 15 days, protesting the fact that they receive the lowest salaries in the country (less than 150 US dollars per month) in a context of economic crisis and rampant inflation. Municipal workers, bankers, and miners also demonstrated in a cross-sectoral mobilization that took on the characteristics of a popular uprising.
Dr. Melisa Argento is a member of the Grupo Geopolítica y Bienes Comunes (Geopolitics and Commons Study Group) at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and the Action Collective for Ecosocial Justice (CAJE).
Florencia Puente is project coordinator of the Rosa Luxemburgo Foundation - Cono Sur Office. She is a member of Red Energía y Poder Popular en América Latina (Network for Energy and Grassroots Power in Latin America).
Lithium Mining in Argentina: Dominated by Transnational Corporations
In recent years, the country has seen a steady increase in pressure to extract lithium from the ground. There are currently between 38 and 50 lithium projects at various stages of exploration, prospecting, and mining across Argentina. Due to the long timeframes involved in the initial stages, only three of these projects are in operation: two in Jujuy, and one in the province of Catamarca.
The Salar de Olaroz mine in Jujuy is operated by the Australian firm Allkem (formerly known as Orocobre), Toyota, and the Jujuy state company JEMSE, which owns 8.5 percent of shares. In Catamarca, the Fénix mine project in Salar del Hombre Muerto has been operated for 25 years by an American company called Livent. In May, Allkem and Livent announced their merger into NewCo, becoming one of the largest companies in the market and heightening the extractivist pressure that leaves national and provincial governments powerless to pursue sovereign policies, let alone more vigorous tax policies. In addition to these projects, Minera Exar recently started mining the salt flats of Olaroz and Cauchari, also in Jujuy, supported by Chinese and Canadian capital.
The weakness of state control can be seen in two central aspects. The first is the lack of regulation of the social and environmental consequences of mining. In Jujuy, the lithium is extracted using evaporation; a technique based not only on the massive use of chemicals in the processing of the lithium, but also on enormous water consumption - and this in the fragile ecosystem of the desert highlands of Puna de Atacama.
The second aspect is the lack of participation of the Argentine state in the foreign exchange earnings from lithium mining. These would be particularly valuable for combating the national debt crisis. The companies pay just three percent of the profits from raw material mining as a concession fee. The companies base this on the figures from their own annual reports, which are not audited by the state. In addition, the Mining Investment Law allows for exemption from this tax as well as a refund of about 1.5 percent. The export tax on lithium is also particularly low. At 4.5%, it is significantly lower than the rate for soybeans, which is around 35% in Argentina.
Argentina is the fourth-largest global exporter of lithium and is part of the misnamed “Lithium Triangle” of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina that contains 58 percent of known global lithium deposits. These figures may change depending on what happens with other lithium deposits, especially the Sonora project in Mexico and the Puno project in Peru.
Green Extractivism for the Energy Transition in the Global North
The pressure on these regions is not only due to lithium, but also cobalt, manganese, rare earth metals, and other minerals such as copper, demand for which is increasing seemingly exponentially as the automobile industry shifts to electric power, particularly in China, the EU, and the US. In addition to the growing interest in the Lithium Triangle, Latin America as a whole threatens to become a quarry for minerals critical to the energy transition in the Global North, as already laid out in the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act.
The province of Jujuy is a paradigmatic example of the expansion of energy mining extractivism tied to the needs of corporate energy transition in Latin America. Since 2015, Jujuy governor Gerardo Morales has promoted the idea that Jujuy is a “green province” — a pioneer in lithium projects, but also renewable energy projects such as the Cauchari I, II, and III solar power projects, the largest solar farms in the world, backed by a major injection of Chinese capital.
At the same time, there have been systematic violations of indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent, a rising number of land evictions and/or lack of recognition of indigenous communities’ territorial ownership in the province, along with repression of the social movements with the greatest capacity for political mobilization. As an inevitable sign of this project, the day after Gerardo Morales came to power in 2016, Milagro Sala, leader of a neighbourhood organization and a member of the Central de los Trabajadores Argentinos, the country’s main trade union federation.In the case of lithium, the rollout of extraction projects began to meet resistance from local communities and territories early on, in 2011, with differing outcomes. Whereas resistance was scattered and poorly organized in Olaroz and Cauchari, where the two current projects are located, in Salinas Grandes and Laguna Guayatayoc resistance was well-coordinated and continues to this day.
Across Argentina, there is an ongoing attempt to advance on indigenous territory. In 2019, the state-owned JEMSE once again put the territory in Salinas Grandes and Laguna Guayatayoc out to tender, against which the communities organized a roadblock of the main highways lasting several days. Last year, a new onslaught from the province led to the surrender of 11,000 hectares of state land to multinational corporations (including Pan American Energy) in exchange for a meagre return of 10 shares and 3 million US dollars.
The New Constitutional Reform: Unconstitutional and Retrogressive
The slogan “Up with wages, down with the reform” brought together multiple actors in Jujuy, who converged around their opposition to the most regressive elements of the new provincial constitution: the prohibition of street protests (Article 67), the corporate management of public goods (water and minerals) and state land (Article 74), and articles concerning the rights and guarantees of indigenous communities. Instead, the executive branch, i.e. the government of the province of Jujuy, is to be given significantly more powers.
Regarding this latter point, the reform is designed to consolidate extraordinary powers for the province’s executive branch. Since the 1994 reform, natural resources are the domain of the provincial government, contradicting legislation and rules found in the Argentinian Constitution, such as Article 75, subsection 17, which stipulates that indigenous peoples and nationalities have ancestral rights over the territories they occupy and inhabit, in addition to other rights assumed in international treaties, such as ILO Convention 169.
What this reform attempts to do is precisely to dissociate itself from that umbrella of legal measures protecting indigenous populations. The new provincial Article 50 establishes that the recognition of indigenous communities’ legal status and the surrender of lands and/or recognition of their rights will now become the sole domain of the provincial government (the same government that has been violating their rights for the last 13 years). Additionally, Article 36 establishes the conditions to permit the evictions of communities on territories where there is lithium and other minerals.
This constitutional reform — which in reality is anti-constitutional — seeks to enshrine in law what has already been happening in reality: the private hoarding of land, the overuse of water, the destruction of ecosystems, salt flats, and high Andean wetlands, and the violation of social, indigenous, and environmental rights, creating a legal framework in the interests of the corporations. The reform goes hand in hand with the centralization of power in the executive branch and the abolition of mid-term elections; in effect, a restructuring of the political system at the regional level.
The adoption of the constitutional reform was also extremely dubious from a formal standpoint. The two largest parties formed a pact and worked out the reform in a few weeks behind closed doors, excluding the remaining deputies and the population. The 90-day period during which civil society was supposed to be involved through public hearings was also not adhered to. After only two weeks, the public debate was declared over and the reform was released for a vote. The new constitution was approved in parallel with the repression and bloody suppression of the protests.
The protest movement makes Jujuy an example of resistance and dignity. Its backbone is the teachers and indigenous communities, who also organized the “tercer Malón de la Paz”, a protest march to the capital, Buenos Aires. The hegemonic political forces are reacting to the resistance movement with a strategy of increasing social polarization, which not only deepens the rift between the ruling party and the opposition, but also relies on racist discourse and hate speech against the population, thus leading to a political shift to the right.