In­dige­nous left poor in deals with tech world

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Todd C. Frankel and Peter Whoriskey

along the olaroz­cauchari salt flats, ar­gentina» In the thin air of the salt flats here, nearly 13,000 feet above sea level, the in­dige­nous Ata­ca­mas peo­ple face a con­stant strug­gle. They herd lla­mas and goats on arid land, knit An­dean hats for ex­tra money and chew coca leaves to fight off the alti­tude’s dizzy­ing ef­fects. They live in mud-brick homes with roofs made of sheets of cor­ru­gated metal weighed down with rocks against the stiff winds.

Yet be­neath their an­ces­tral land lies a mod­ern-day Sil­i­con Val­ley trea­sure: lithium.

The sil­very-white metal is es­sen­tial for the lithium-ion bat­ter­ies that power smart­phones, lap­tops and elec­tric ve­hi­cles, and the pop­u­lar­ity of these prod­ucts has prompted a land rush here. Min­ing com­pa­nies have for years been ex­tract­ing bil­lions of dol­lars of lithium from the Ata­cama re­gion in Chile, and now firms are flock­ing to the neigh­bor­ing Ata­cama lands in Ar­gentina to hunt for the min­eral known as “white gold.”

But the im­pov­er­ished Ata­ca­mas have seen lit­tle of the riches.

Ac­cord­ing to pre­vi­ously undis­closed con­tracts re­viewed by The Wash­ing­ton Post, one lithium com­pany, a joint Canadian-Chilean ven­ture named Min­era Exar, struck deals with six abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties for a new mine here. The op­er­a­tion is ex­pected to gen­er­ate about $250 mil­lion a year in sales while each com­mu­nity will re­ceive an an­nual pay­ment — rang­ing from $9,000 to about $60,000 — for ex­ten­sive sur­face and wa­ter rights.

An­other lithium com­pany here, a joint ven­ture of an Aus­tralian min­ing com­pany and Toy­ota Tsusho of Ja­pan that be­gan pro­duc­tion in 2015, makes cash pay­ments to the vil­lage where its plant is based. A com­pany rep­re­sen­ta­tive de­clined to re­lease de­tails of the contract but said the money has been used to help build a school hall.

In vis­its to all six of the in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, which lie on a moun­tain­ringed desert about 25 miles from Ar­gentina’s north­west bor­der with Chile, The Post found a strik­ing con­trast — far­away com­pa­nies prof­it­ing from min­eral riches while the com­mu­ni­ties that own the land strug­gle to pay for sewage sys­tems, drink­ing wa­ter and heat for schools.

“We know the lithium com­pa­nies are tak­ing mil­lions of dol­lars from our lands,” said Luisa Jorge, a leader in Susques, one of the six com­mu­ni­ties around the salt flats. “The com­pa­nies are con­scious of this. And we know they ought to give some­thing back. But they’re not.”

Many in the com­mu­ni­ties also are wor­ried that the lithium plants, which use vast amounts of wa­ter, will deepen ex­ist­ing short­ages in the re­gion, which re­ceives less than four inches of rain a year. At least one of the six com­mu­ni­ties, Pas­tos Chicos, has to have potable wa­ter trucked in.

“It’s like a joke,” said Bruno Fornillo, a re­searcher at Ar­gentina’s Na­tional Sci­en­tific and Tech­ni­cal Re­search Coun­cil who stud­ies the im­pact of lithium min­ing. The com­pa­nies “re­ally think the in­dige­nous are like stones in the road. If there’s a prob­lem, they have to kick it aside.”

In re­sponse to the com­plaints, the min­ing com­pa­nies ac­tive here said they fol­low en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and that the lithium boom has yielded ben­e­fits for res­i­dents. They point to the cre­ation of hun­dreds of new jobs and in­vest­ments of hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in one of Ar­gentina’s poor­est re­gions. Some com­pa­nies said they also en­gage in ed­u­ca­tion ef­forts and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment projects, such as test­ing whether quinoa may be grown in the area.

But op­po­si­tion is not hard to find. A protest ban­ner, read­ing “The lithium be­longs to the lo­cal peo­ple,” re­cently wel­comed trav­el­ers out­side the air­port in Salta, which is fre­quented by min­ing ex­ec­u­tives.

Michael Robin­son Chavez, Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

Lo­cal in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties say they have a spir­i­tual con­nec­tion with the above pools, known as “eyes,” in the Sali­nas Gran­des salt flat in Ar­gentina.

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