SOURCE: Red Muqui. Translated by: Andrea Pisera
The myths of “green,” “sustainable” and “climate smart” mining are gaining traction across the world. Companies are marketing these mines as “green,” and present them as the solution to the climate crisis in order to attract investors. They promote Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) criteria, and the promise to investors that their projects are and will be profitable in the coming decades due to the urgency of migrating to renewable energy.
The scarcity and high demand for these critical minerals are frequently emphasized in an effort to highlight the strategic role they play in supplying these key materials. They do not mention the outstanding water and energy resources essential for obtaining them, and much less do they mention the human rights violations of the communities that inhabit these territories, nor the pollution that these extractive activities imply. Indigenous and grassroots communities, experts, academics and activists who resist this expansion, affirm that a transition that heavily depends on mining new materials without considering materials and energy for what, for whom, and at what socio-environmental costs will only reinforce the injustices and unsustainability that have led us to the climate crisis worldwide.
An initiative of the Environmental Justice Atlas project with MiningWatch Canada, and in collaboration with 25 communities from the American continent on the same number of mining conflicts, comes to highlight this new mining boom. Via an interactive map, they presented the most recent update of the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice. It includes cases that make up only a small excerpt of all disputes between communities and mining companies in the region, and intends to include other cases, such as those that have been previously documented and whose analysis geographically encompasses the entire planet.
The mining boom in the American continent
In our continent, from the great plains of the United States to the Aconcagua region in Chile, the struggles are similar, in terms of the disparity of power faced by the communities that oppose projects promoted by companies set up during the boom of “green” mining, and whose operations in recent months have achieved unmatched value thanks to the mineral price super-cycle. The demand for these elements, plucked from the bowels of the hills to make viable the “clean energies” called thus by their owners, is what has precisely renewed the greed for copper, graphite or lithium, extraction of which goes hand in hand with high impacts on the territories of those who inhabit them.
Now more than ever, they are under enormous pressure. The World Bank estimates that in order to comply with the agreements of the Paris Climate Summit whose purpose is to limit global warming to the threshold of 1.5°C, it will be necessary to extract another 3 billion tons of these materials in the next thirty years, which is equivalent to quadrupling the current world production. Looked at in a little more detail, some metals such as copper would see their demand grow to double their current production; in the case of nickel, it would take six times what is currently obtained, and the demand for lithium would skyrocket up to 13 times in relation to recent extraction.
But why the rush for so many metals and minerals?
The estimated vehicle fleet is currently around one billion units in circulation worldwide. Its producers plan to expand manufacturing so that between now and 2030 there will be 2.5 billion cars riding on streets and highways. Such mobility has already transformed cities like Lima, São Paulo, Santiago de Chile or Mexico City into impassable and packed mega-cities. Of course, the current hydrocarbon combustion engines would be replaced by electric cars, and these require six times more metals and minerals than conventional cars. Thus, it is important to understand that the decarbonization of the transportation sector will demand the largest amounts of metals and minerals during the energy transition, only surpassed by that required for the construction of electricity grids. Technologies for the generation of solar and wind energy follow in material needs.
The consideration made by the indigenous Shoshone people of the great plains in the United States, in a recent statement rejecting the open-pit mining project “Lithium Nevada Corp” to be developed in their ancestral territory, observed: “We acknowledge that we must all be committed to the fight against climate change. However, this struggle cannot be used as another excuse to destroy indigenous territories. We cannot protect the environment if we destroy it.”
What are they and from where are they obtained?
Let’s first see what these supplies are, and what role is assigned to this region of the planet. Even though several minerals and metals are required for the energy transition, the top six are: rare earths, cobalt, graphite, nickel, copper, and lithium. All estimates point to copper as one of the metals in greatest demand for current energy transition plans, given that approximately 76% of the total demand for copper (estimated for 2040) will go to the construction of the electrical networks that will supply renewable energies.
To better understand where these minerals are currently mined, and where they are likely to be mined in the future, it is important to consider both current production and reserves. According to the aforementioned study, the American continent has a strategic position by concentrating the six critical minerals, especially lithium (it concentrates almost a third of the current global extraction and almost three-quarters of the world reserves) and copper (more than half of the world extraction).
The conditions of the extraction
Large-scale mining is an activity in itself of great socio-environmental impact, and is one of the activities associated with the highest number of murders of environmental defenders in the world, according to Global Witness. Mining projects are increasing the extractive pressure in particularly fragile and biodiverse ecosystems and regions, such as the salt flats and the Amazon, with no respect for the rights of the environment and of the communities that have inhabited these territories, sometimes for hundreds or thousands of years.
Despite being presented as “green” mining projects, the vast majority of these projects are no different, in their size, or in their planned extraction and processing techniques, from existing mines on the continent for the extraction of minerals.
Impacts on fragile and (un)protected ecosystems
In addition to known violations in different places, additional risks are added.
Many mining projects proposed and in operation are advancing on protected areas and in biodiversity hotspots, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, tropical forests, in the glacial zones of Peru, in wetlands designated by Ramsar such as in Argentina or in the salt flats of Chile.
Impacts on water
Mining—particularly lithium mining—is a highly water-intensive activity that threatens the quality and quantity of water available to communities and ecosystems. As communities face water emergencies, mining operations can exceed the daily water use of the region’s inhabitants, increasing pressure on already arid regions and placing the availability of potable water at risk. Mining is also a source of water pollution. In order to produce one ton of lithium in the Atacama salt flat (Chile), 2,000 million liters of water are evaporated, which considerably affects both the availability of water and the quality of underground freshwater reserves.
Peru has deposits of approximately 4.7 million tons of lithium and 56 thousand tons of uranium. These were found by the Canadian company Macusani Yellowcake in the province of Carabaya (Puno), during exploratory activities that did not have any environmental certification. The area where the Yellowcake company’s activities would be carried out is at the head of the Marcapata, Macusani, Inambari, and Phinaya rivers basin. This location allows us to understand that the potential impact is not limited to the local extraction space, but can also reach water basins and affect endemic species or species at risk of extinction.
What’s left? Mining waste
Only a small part of what is mined is processed (with large amounts of water, toxic metals and energy) and considered a valuable metal, what is left is rock waste and mining waste. Additionally, there is a sustained decrease in the metal grades of mining deposits worldwide and in the region, which implies that greater amounts of resources are used to obtain smaller amounts of metals. This leaves a huge environmental impact due to toxic and heavy metal products that have to be dealt with in perpetuity. May Dagher, spokeswoman for the coalition of citizens against the Matawinie graphite project by Nouveau Monde (NMG) located in Quebec, Canada, explains that for the manufacture of a Tesla Model S electric car, the battery that replaces the motor requires 73 kilos of graphite, which pollutes 1,220 litres of water and produce 4.8 tons of solid mineral waste and emits 0.4 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So, and despite the fact that NMG’s marketing strategy presents the project as an example of a sustainable, responsible and even green mining company, as it is powered 100 percent by renewable energies, the reality is open pit projects with a magnitude of 2.7 km long and 240 meters deep, from where 100 thousand tons of graphite will be obtained annually. Meanwhile, the deposits of waste materials will amount to 4 million tons per year or 100 million tons throughout the 25-year useful life of the project. And that is occurring in the centre of the industrialized world, in an area where until now , companies and the government have had no need to intervene; in a landscape of lakes and mountains of high water and recreational resource value, in a highly sensitive ecological region located between a national and a regional park.
If this occurs in the rich and industrialized global north, it is not surprising then that many governments and mining corporations, mostly Canadians and Australians, as it has been documented, are positioning mining as a key and indispensable activity to solve the environmental crisis, promoting its expansion to culturally and ecologically fragile territories.
The study concludes that global extractivism driven by the energy transition is not only environmentally and socially unjust, unsustainable and violent, but is placing water cycles, species already on the brink of extinction, and sensitive ecosystems with important functions, at risk. Furthermore, the cumulative effect of mining projects must not be underestimated, since they are literally undermining the resilience capacities of these ecosystems of vital importance for biodiversity, the possibilities of cultivating the land and preserving the climate’s balance.
We are a network of Peruvian institutions that at the local, regional, national, and international level, defends and promotes the recognition, respect, and exercise of the rights of communities and populations, as well as sustainable development, where mining activities are planned and/or being carried out to analyze their social, environmental and cultural implications.