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  • Sara Berman

The Lithium Triangle: How Electric Vehicles Are Putting Indigenous Communities at Risk


Photo by celso costa on Unsplash

The looming threat of climate change has encouraged the effort of seeking new sustainable energy sources, and lithium-powered batteries have become an important topic of interest in the development of electric vehicles. According to the EPA, the transportation sector accounts for nearly thirty percent of greenhouse gas emissions annually in the United States, making the switch to electric vehicles very desirable for reducing emissions as a whole. Many countries have begun pledging a complete switch to electric vehicles in the coming decades. Although this development may seem positive for reducing carbon emissions, lithium mining presents significant potential to harm other environments and poses several complications from a social standpoint.

Over sixty percent of the world's lithium sources are found within three South American countries: Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. These countries, known as the Lithium Triangle, are making efforts to extract lithium as fast as possible due to the economic potential that its value offers. Mining has the potential to yield jobs and increase revenue to benefit communities, but as these countries make efforts to increase extraction, they are troubled with the unpredictability of the environmental impact that mining will have on local ecosystems.

The most significant issue that lithium mining poses is its consumption of water. For every ton of lithium produced, 500,000 gallons of water are required to extract it from the earth's surface. This amount of water is enough to provide for 3,500 people a year. The three regions of the Lithium Triangle lie in some of the world's driest regions, where communities are already experiencing water shortages and stress on their local ecosystems. Most of these communities are Indigenous and have already begun calling for standards on regulations within the lithium mining industry.

Another issue that has threatened these areas is the impact on air quality. Lithium-mining is still relatively new to mitigating the climate crisis, but environmentalists are calling for investment into research of the impacts that this process has on local ecosystems. During the process of extraction, lithium and other chemicals are directly exposed to winds. By researching the effects of these chemicals on air quality, scientists will be able to gauge the impact that lithium mining has on the environment more accurately.

One of the most prominent social concerns about lithium mining is the communities' calls to benefit from the extractions taking place on their lands. The Indigenous communities are requesting that they profit from the industry and make investments in building schools, hospitals, and better infrastructure. These communities are also requesting they have a say in future mining projects on their land. Business decisions are often made without consulting the Indigenous groups that occupy the land, leaving these communities with no option but to protest to protect themselves. Indigenous groups are filing injunctions against their respective state and national governments, demanding to be consulted regarding extraction projects, but these requests are rarely taken into consideration by governments who view their land as profitable. As of now, their land and resources are being used without permission for the direct benefit of the lithium industry, and without anything to gain, these Indigenous groups are being left out of the potential within this industry to improve the value of their land.

As the industry continues to grow, Indigenous communities are first-hand experiencing the consequences of lithium mining due to the water shortages that affect their home lives and agriculture. Chemical companies using the region's resources have already been caught using more water than they are permitted, and while these industries continue to profit, it is unlikely the government will enforce any regulations.

Out of the world's top five lithium producers, only one has a human rights policy put in place to protect the lives of the Indigenous communities that reside in the areas. However, all five of these companies still have allegations of human rights abuse, which raises the pressing concern of accountability from the companies using these protected lands for profit. This observed discrepancy between policy and practice emphasizes the importance of implementing rules either enforced by the government or the United Nations to ensure the human rights standards in regards to Indigenous communities are being upheld.

The way the lithium industry is currently regulated harbors the potential for Indigenous communities to continue to be taken advantage of. Without changes to procedural ethics, the regions lithium resides in will suffer at the sustainable energy industry's hands. While the switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy is crucial for the planet's livelihood, it is vital to make sure the switch is still fair when it comes to protecting the communities that possess most of the resources that make this transition possible.

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