Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.

Why Lithium Power Politics Are Playing Out Very Differently in Chile and Bolivia

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In late July, a large sinkhole appeared near the town of Tierra Amarilla in Chile’s Copiapó province in the Atacama salt flat. The crater, which has a diameter of more than 100 feet, emerged in one of Chile’s most lucrative regions for copper and lithium extraction. The nearby Candelaria mining complex—80 percent of the property is owned by Canada’s Lundin Mining Corporation and 20 percent is owned by Japan’s Sumitomo Metal Mining Co Ltd. and Sumitomo Corporation—had to halt its operations in the area. On August 1, Chile’s National Geology and Mining Service (Sernageomin) tweeted that it had assembled a team to investigate the sinkhole that appeared less than 2,000 feet away from human habitation. The mayor of Tierra Amarilla, Cristóbal Zúñiga, questioned why the earth had given way near the Alcaparrosa mine, and whether the appearance of the hole had something to do with the mining operations. “Today it happened on an agricultural property,” the mayor told Ciudadano ADN radio, “but our greatest fear is that this could happen in a populated place on a street, in a school, and protecting the integrity of our inhabitants is our greatest concern at the moment.”

Government officials traveled to Tierra Amarilla to investigate the sinkhole. On August 12, Marcela Hernando, the minister of mining, joined Cristóbal Zúñiga and others to tour the Alcaparrosa mine. Before the visit, Zúñiga called for the authorities to apply “maximum sanctions” to punish those responsible for the sinkhole, which seems to have been caused by underground mining activities carried out by the Candelaria mining complex. The government agency responsible for the investigation—Sernageomin—has suspended all mining activity in the area and is continuing with its forensic assessment to ascertain the reasons behind the earth collapsing near the mining complex.

Moratorium on Mining

“We should not be speaking of any kind of extraction in the Atacama salt flat,” Ramón Morales Balcázar told us a few days after the sinkhole was discovered. Morales Balcázar is the founder of Fundación Tantí, a nongovernmental organization in San Pedro de Atacama that is dedicated to the promotion of agroecology and socio-environmental sustainability. “The Atacama salt flat is exhausted, [and has been] deeply impacted by copper and lithium mining and tourism. We should be working to restore the ecosystem there,” said Morales Balcázar. The word “exhausted” is also the title of a new report coauthored by Morales Balcázar that offers a chilling portrait of the depletion of groundwater as a result of global lithium extractors. “Lithium extraction, the newest industry to the region [of the Atacama salt flat], is now yet another way the scarce water resources are being depleted,” stated the report.

Morales Balcázar is part of a team of researchers known as the Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats (OPSAL). These scholars are engaged in fine-grained research about what they see as the ecocide of the salt flat, which stretches across Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. A book written by these scholars in 2021—Andean Salt Flats: An Ecology of Knowledge for the Protection of Our Salt Flats and Wetlands—offers a detailed assessment of what they call “green extractivism” and “green growth.” Extractivism refers to the extraction of natural resources from the earth to make profits without any consideration for the earth being mined or for the people who live in the areas being mined. “Extraction and extractivism are not the same,” said Morales Balcázar. The former is the mere removal of natural resources, which can be done sustainably without harming the earth, and is carried out for the social well-being of the people who live near the mines.

“We have been holding conversations with Indigenous institutions and trade unions to imagine different regimes of extraction,” Morales Balcázar told us. When the workers at Albemarle—a U.S. mining company—went on strike in 2021, Morales Balcázar and other colleagues spoke with them about the possibility of thinking about new kinds of extraction techniques, although “it is really not something we can see in the near future,” said Morales Balcázar. One reason why miners at Albemarle and the Indigenous institutions (such as the Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños) cannot conceive of any alternative is that even if they get trinkets from the mining wealth, that is still seen as a better option than facing unemployment.

Bolivia’s Alternative

North of Chile, in Bolivia, the concept of “resource nationalism” has framed the debate around lithium extraction in the country. In 1992, the government of then-Bolivian President Jaime Paz Zamora signed an agreement with the U.S.-based company Lithium Corporation of America, now known as FMC Corporation, which “allowed the company to take all the lithium it could, giving Bolivia only eight percent of the profits. Many Bolivians were outraged over the deal,” according to a 2010 article in the New Yorker. This led to protests by the Potosí Civic Committee, which eventually ended the contract.

When Evo Morales took over as president of Bolivia in 2006, the residue of this battle shaped his “resource nationalism” approach to lithium and other minerals. “He vowed to ‘industrialize with dignity and sovereignty,’ promising that raw lithium would not be exploited by foreign corporations but instead processed by state-controlled entities in Bolivia and transformed into batteries,” noted a 2018 article in Bloomberg. In 2007, Bolivia developed a lithium industrialization policy. The Mining Corporation of Bolivia (Comibol), we learned from officials there at the time, encouraged Bolivian scientists to develop and patent traditional methods of extraction through evaporation (although this method has struggled due to the high levels of magnesium found in the Bolivian lithium). Morales’ government invested heavily in the lithium industrialization scheme, which led to Bolivia being able to develop its own batteries (including cathode production) and develop its own electric car through the state-owned Quantum Motors. To control and manage lithium production, a company called Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB) was created in 2017 by the government.

“We were making great progress,” Evo Morales told us, “until the coup of 2019 and then the pandemic.” The coup eventually led to his ouster. “We will coup whoever we want,” wrote Elon Musk, whose company Tesla relies on lithium for its batteries and electric cars. Such is the anger against the possibilities of “resource nationalism.”

Developments in Bolivia show that new ways of extraction are being explored, even if these are not perfect. Environmental challenges in the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, and grumbles by people who live there continue to define lithium extraction. However, the lithium industrialization policy and the great care taken by the country for what the Bolivians callPachamama—the earth—during the extraction process offer some differences from the extraction work done by the large Canadian and U.S. mining companies. In Chile, Lester Calderón, a union leader in the city of Antofagasta, who ran for governor in 2021, wrote an article in January 2022 in which he argued that the Indigenous communities must decide about the way lithium is used and that the resources (including water) of Chile must be nationalized. These elements are in place in Bolivia, and yet there are challenges ahead for the people there.

Bolivia’s current President Luis Alberto Arce Catacora hopes to renew the state-led lithium industrialization policy but cannot find the resources domestically to do so. That is the reason why his government has embarked on a process of drawing in investment from outside (currently, six firms from China, Russia and the United States are still competing to secure the bid).

The center of the struggle in Bolivia is Potosí, where the Spaniards, who ruled the region, had for centuries hollowed out the earth to draw silver to export to Europe. “We were the center of [silver] exploitation but remained at the fringes of the country’s decision-making,” Potosí government official Juan Tellez told Reuters. “That is what we are trying to avoid now with lithium.” The people of Potosí, like the people of Tierra Amarilla in Chile, want to imagine a different kind of extraction: one that is controlled by those who live by the sources of the metal and one that does not destroy the earth, creating sinkholes everywhere.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Sanctions Fuel the Fire at Cuba’s Matanzas Oil Storage

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On August 5, a major oil storage facility in Matanzas, Cuba, 65 miles east of Havana, was hit by lightning. A tank that contained 25,000 cubic meters of crude oil caught fire after being struck. Since then, an enormous fire has been raging in Matanzas. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Ávalos Jorge, deputy head of Cuba’s fire department, said that it was impossible to estimate when the fire would be completely extinguished. This tremendous explosion and hard-to-control fire has led to several people being reported missing (including firefighters), many others injured with severe burns, and hundreds more evacuated from their homes. Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, rushed to Matanzas on August 6, interacted with the local officials who were trying to get the fire under control, met residents of the town, and the next day, interacted with the press and spoke about the heroic work done by the firefighters and the solidarity of the Cuban people. “We are going to overcome this adversity,” he said.

Four of the eight tanks at the storage facility have been impacted by these fires. By August 8, Matanzas Governor Mario Sabines Lorenzo also confirmed that three tanks had been compromised. Clouds of dust now hover over the island. Elba Rosa Pérez Montoya, Cuba’s minister of Science, Technology, and Environment (CITMA), said that scientists from various backgrounds were monitoring the situation to see if the smoke resulting from the fire will lead to any negative health effects for the residents of the surrounding areas. As of that point, she said, “We have no evidence that there are effects on human health.” Nonetheless, strange substances have been detected in the water supplies in Yumurí Valley, Matanzas. Diosdado Vera, an 89-year-old farmer, showed journalist Arnaldo Mirabal Hernández the unusual color and odor of the water in an old bathtub that serves as the water source for her cows. “There are approximately 3,200 particles in the air right now,” said CITMA Minister Pérez Montoya. “The clouds have sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, among other substances that are falling on Matanzas, Mayabeque, and Havana.” Meanwhile, Pérez Montoya said that a team of scientists is investigating the strange substances found in the Yumurí Valley.

This tragedy has also had immediate repercussions for the entire population in the province of Matanzas and the whole island of Cuba since it affects their electricity supply and access to health care, which already are strained under the weight of the U.S. blockade, due to lack of availability of spare parts and scarcity of medicines in Cuba, respectively.

The fire has already led to the Antonio Guiteras thermoelectric plant in Matanzas being out of service due to a shortage of water and the contamination of the water cycle. This will likely lead to severe electricity outages amid record heat waves this summer. Ricardo Ronquillo Bello, president of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC), tweeted that this tragedy will be “another test for Cuban journalism that will know how to honor with its humanism and social responsibility.” Ronquillo was referring to the onslaught of fake news that swept through social media, leading to a sense of alarm during an already difficult period.

In this dire crisis, the people of Cuba and their government have responded immediately, and this has resulted in on-site efforts to contain the fire, prevent a major environmental disaster, and keep the population safe. It has also led to a call for international aid and solidarity. The governments of Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile and several others have promptly offered material aid, and some countries like Mexico and Venezuela have also sent experts and firefighters to confront this complex situation. Cuba’s Credit and Commerce Bank (Bandec) has set up an account so that people in the country can donate money to the people of Matanzas.

“Cuba is Matanzas,” said President Díaz-Canel, in the context of both the impact of the fire on the entire island and the solidarity that is visible across Cuba.

Sanctions

The U.S. blockade of Cuba fuels the fire that rages on in the country, despite denials by authorities in the United States. The U.S. government has both been stiffening up the blockade of Cuba and denying that sanctions have any impact on the functioning of the country (in fact, in 2021, then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki had said that the problems in Cuba are not due to the U.S. sanctions but rather are due to “the Cuban government’s economic mismanagement”). The U.S. Embassy in Havana has made assurances that the blockade authorizes U.S. entities and organizations to provide disaster relief and response. But organizations tell us that this is not the case, with the 243 sanctions imposed on Cuba working as a stranglehold against pursuing any activity in the country. Many of these organizations say that the process to send aid to Cuba is lengthy, with a licensing regime in place that requires expensive lawyers. Cuba’s inclusion in the state sponsors of terrorism list means that banks in both the United States and abroad are reluctant to process humanitarian donations.

While Washington says one thing and does another, the firefighters in Matanzas—aided by the reinforcements from Mexico and Venezuela—have been spraying foam on the fire to prevent it from spreading further, and helicopters have been pouring water on the other oil tanks to stop them from combusting. Even after the fire settles and the ashes remain, Cuba will struggle to rebuild these tanks and to solve its energy crisis. These are not merely domestic problems but rather are problems created and exaggerated by the harmful U.S.-imposed blockade that has been in existence for the past six decades.

Not long after the lightning strike, users on social media shared the hashtag #FuerzaMatanzas (be strong, Matanzas) on various platforms. Within 24 hours, the hashtag was shared by nearly a billion users, according to Dayron Avello, social media manager at Clínica Internacional Camilo Cienfuegos. A billion people have signaled their support for Cuba, a solidarity the U.S. blockade is unable to prevent.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Chile’s Lithium Provides Profit to the Billionaires But Exhausts the Land and the People

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The Atacama salt flat in northern Chile, which stretches 1,200 square miles, is the largest source of lithium in the world. We are standing on a bluff, looking over la gran fosa, the great pit that sits at the southern end of the flat, which is shielded from public view. It is where the major Chilean corporations have set up shop to extract lithium and export it—largely unprocessed—into the global market. “Do you know whose son-in-law is the lithium king of Chile?” asks Loreto, who took us to the salt flat to view these white sands from a vantage point. His response is not so shocking; it is Julio Ponce Lerou, who is the largest stakeholder in the lithium mining company Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM) and the former son-in-law of the late military dictator Augusto Pinochet (who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990).

SQM and Albemarle, the two major Chilean mining companies, dominate the Atacama salt flat. It is impossible to get a permit to visit the southern end of the flats, where the large corporations have set up their operations. The companies extract the lithium by pumping brine from beneath the salt flat and then letting it evaporate for months before carrying out the extraction. “SQM steals our water to extract lithium,” said the former president of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Atacameño, Ana Ramos, in 2018, according to Deutsche Welle. The concentrate left behind after evaporation is turned into lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide, which are then exported, and form key raw materials used in the production of lithium-ion batteries. About a third of the world’s lithium comes from Chile. According to Goldman Sachs, “lithium is the new gasoline.”

What Necessity Does

Ownership over the salt flat is contested among the state, Chile’s Indigenous communities, and private entities. But, as one member of the Lickanantay community—the Indigenous people who call the Atacama salt flat their home—told us, most of the owners of the land do not live in the area any longer. Juan, who raises horses and whose family were herders, tells us that people “live off the rents from the land. They do not care what happens to the area.” However, Juan knows that these rents are minuscule. “What they pay us as they mine our land is practically a tip,” he says. “It is nothing compared to what they earn. But it is still a lot of money.” For most Lickanantay people, Juan says, “lithium is not an issue because although it is known to damage the environment, it is providing [us with] money.” “Necessity drives people to do a lot of things,” he adds.

The negative environmental impacts of mining lithium have been widely studied by scientists and observed by tourist guides in Chile. Angelo, a guide, tells us that he worries about the water supplies getting polluted due to mining activities and the impact it has on the Atacama Desert animals, including the pink flamingos. “Every once in a while, we see a dead pink flamingo,” he says. Cristina Inés Dorador, who participated in writing Chile’s new proposed constitution, is a scientist with a PhD in natural sciences who has published about the decline of the pink flamingo population in the salt flat. However, Dorador has also said that new technologies could be used to prevent the widespread negative environmental impact. Ingrid Garcés Millas, who has a PhD in earth sciences from the University of Zaragoza and is a researcher at the University of Antofagasta, pointed out that the currently used of lithium extraction has led to the deterioration of the “ways of life of [the] Andean peoples” in an article for Le Monde Diplomatique. An example she provided was that while the underground water supply is used by the lithium industry, the “communities are supplied [with water] by cistern trucks.”

According to a report by MiningWatch Canada and the Environmental Justice Atlas, “to produce one ton of lithium in the salt flats in Atacama (Chile), 2,000 tons of water are evaporated, causing significant harm to both the availability of water and the quality of underground fresh water reserves.”

Meanwhile, there is no pressing debate in the Atacama region over the extraction of lithium. Most people seem to have accepted that lithium mining is here to stay. Among the activists, there are disagreements over how to approach the question of lithium. More radical activists believe that lithium should not be extracted, while others debate about who should benefit from the wealth generated by the mining of lithium. Still others, such as Angelo and Loreto, believe that Chile’s willingness to export the unprocessed lithium denies the country the possibility of exploring the benefits that might come from processing the metal within the country.

Natural Commons

Before the presidential election in Chile in November 2021, we went to see Giorgio Jackson, now one of the closest advisers to Chile’s President Gabriel Boric. He told us then that Chile’s new government would look at the possibility of the nationalization of key resources, such as copper and lithium. This no longer seems to be on the government’s agenda, despite the expectation that the high prices for copper and lithium would pay for the much-needed pension reforms and the modernization of the country’s infrastructure.

The idea of nationalization was floated around the constitutional convention but did not find its way into the text of the proposed constitution, which will be put to vote on September 4. Instead, the proposed constitution builds on Article 19 of the 1980 constitution, which provides for “the right to live in an environment free from contamination.” The new constitution is expected to lay out the natural commons under which the state “has a special duty of custody, in order to ensure the rights of nature and the interest of present and future generations.”

In the waning days of the government of former President Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s Mining Ministry awarded two companies—BYD Chile SpA and Servicios y Operaciones Mineras del Norte S.A.—extraction rights for 80,000 tons of lithium each for 20 years. An appeals court in Copiapó heard a petition from the governor of Copiapó, Miguel Vargas, and from various Indigenous communities. In January 2022, the court suspended the deal; that suspension was upheld in June by the Supreme Court. This does not imply that Chile will roll back the exploitation of lithium by the major corporations, but it does suggest that a new appetite is developing against the widespread exploitation of natural resources in the country.

Until 2016, Chile produced 37 percent of the global market share of lithium, making the country the world’s largest producer of the metal. When Chile’s government increased royalty rates on the miners, several of them curtailed production and some increased their stake in Argentina (SQM, for instance, entered a joint venture with Lithium Americas Corporation to work on a project in Argentina). Chile is behind Australia in terms of lithium production in the world market presently, falling from 37 percent in 2016 to 29 percent in 2019 (with an expectation that Chile’s share will fall further to 17 percent by 2030).

Juan’s observation that “necessity drives people to do a lot of things” captures the mood among the Atacameños. The needs of the people of the region seem to only come after the needs of the large corporations. Relatives of the old dictators accumulate wealth off of the land, while the owners of the land—out of necessity—sell their land for a propina, a tip.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.