Is Australian Lithium the answer to Zero Emissions?

The following statement Is Australian Lithium the Answer to Zero Emissions? was co-written by Aid/Watch Committee of Management member Claire Burgess and Liz Downes from Melbourne Rainforest Action Group (MRAG). Aid/Watch Campaign Coordinator, Nat Lowrey was contributing author.

Endorsed by Melbourne Rainforest Action Group (MRAG) and Aid/Watch who are members of Australian Mining Energy Justice Transition network and the Yes to Life No to Mining this statement supports the YLNM Lithium Communique #1: On the Frontlines of Lithium Mining that was launched on 22 September 2021.

*For statement with full references please download here

Mining context in Australia

Australia is a core player in the global mining industry – dominating 40% of total market share – with operations domestically and overseas. Some of the largest companies in the world hail from Australia, including RioTinto and BHP. Extractive settler-colonial narratives have held sway since the expropriation of First Nations lands by the British empire in 1788, shaping politics and national identity in Australia. Mining since the 1840s has been relied upon as a key driver of the Australian economy.

Mining concerns in Australia include failures to respect Indigenous rights, polluted waterways, land clearing and the legacy issues of abandoned mining sites and communities. First Nations groups have a history of resisting mining, leading to a number of native title disputes with mining companies. First Nations groups’ access to, and control over, areas of cultural significance is often negotiated through land use agreements. Furthermore, Native Title law does not allow First Nations people to say no to mining or exploration.

Impacts of mining in remote communities have been devastating to cultural continuity and spiritual practices due to the landscape disruptions of sacred sites and the socio-cultural impacts of mining activities in close proximity to remote communities. Events such as Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000 year old sacred site at Juukan Gorge continue to occur. 

‘Green’ Lithium and Australian (ASX) Companies

Australia is the world’s largest producer and exporter of lithium, supplying 54.4 percent of the total market in 2019. 95% of Australia’s ore based raw material is exported to China – already contributing to the ‘clean tech’ battery transition. The largest hard rock lithium reserve in the world is located in Western Australia (WA), known as Greenbushes where new exploration is emerging.  This area contains a river that is considered a sacred site by the First Nations Noongar people.

Australian (ASX) lithium companies are rushing to take advantage of the hikes in prices and increasing demand for this mineral driven by the massive industrial shift to electrification of personal vehicles containing lithium-ion batteries, in response to new climate policies in the US, EU and China. Most lithium exploration and project sites are situated in WA, SA, NT and QLD. A flurry of new companies have been granted licences for exploration, as showcased at a recent ‘New World Metals’ industry conference.

Australia’s key market competitors are located in the ‘lithium triangle’ spanning across Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, where the mineral is drawn out of the region’s salt lakes. Promoters of Australian lithium maintain that hard rock lithium is more ‘environmentally friendly’ than Latin American markets. Regardless of this, Australian companies are currently expanding into Argentina (Orocobre/Allkem), Germany (Vulcan Energy) and Serbia (Rio Tinto), resulting in new environmental and human rights concerns on top of existing legacy issues. 

Policy context - lithium

The ‘clean energy’ transition has been marketed as the dominant technological mitigation approach to address climate change. Thus, several wealthy nations have released policy platforms that incentivise a rapid shift from fuel intensive to material intensive energy systems where lithium is playing a key role. The potential for negative consequences on human rights and ecological systems from the expansion of mining activities to meet the massive demands has yet to be adequately factored into these new green economic policies.

Australia has a political and economic environment that is largely supportive of hard rock mining –  companies are unlikely to be held accountable for continued destructive practices. The revolving door between resource-based government officials and the Australian Minerals Council, a powerful lobby group, is well known. 

Influenced by the large profits from emissions heavy extractive industries such as coal and iron ore, the federal government has lagged behind other western democracies in implementing policies that support a ‘clean energy’ transition, leading to a number of legal cases. The latest ‘Critical Minerals’ report refers to Australia as playing a ‘lead role’ in supplying raw materials, particularly lithium, for global technology markets. In the key mining state, WA, a Future Battery Industry Strategy was announced in 2019 to foster investment in lithium for the global market and expand refining capacities. 

Principles towards a just transformation

In support of the Lithium Communique #1: On the Frontlines of Lithium Mining, Yes to Life No to Mining (YLNM) Australian member groups, Melbourne Rainforest Action Group (MRAG) and Aid/Watch are calling for a dialogue on the drastic expansion of mining in the name of ‘Green Energy’ and ‘Green Extractivism’.

We challenge the idea that a ‘just transformation’ and emissions reductions can be achieved simply by replacing one form of mining with other forms of mining.

We advocate for Alternatives to Green Extractivism including a massive reduction in the (over)consumption of minerals, metals and other non-renewable materials extracted from the Earth.

We acknowledge that these alternatives must include listening to and supporting Indigenous and local community practices and knowledge systems in protecting our lands and waters for future generations.

We envision a transformation towards a future guided by the prioritisation of the Rights of Communities and the Rights of Nature.

We support the YLNM Lithium Principles and Demands towards a Just Transition:

  • Reduce demands for materials and energy. We must pursue policies and practices that aggressively reduce consumption, and unfettered economic growth, and instead promote and support public transportation, develop and provide other alternatives to individual vehicle travel, and design-level attention to repair, reuse and recycling of battery and other products.
  • Promote unbiased assessment of mining proposals for front-line communities. Communities must be  able to fully understand the consequences of a proposed mine project: to be able to evaluate what changes to the mine may be required in order to meet the needs/interests of the community, if they are to agree to its implementation, or determine if there is no acceptable mine plan.
  • Recognize that communities have the Right to Say No. Front-line communities bear the effects of a mine into the future for the sake of the global community. After a fully informed independent assessment, they should still be afforded a legal right to refuse hosting a proposed mining operation.
  • Address climate change from a holistic and environmental justice perspective towards a just transformation. Mining is inherently destructive including hampering the ability of nature to moderate climate, loss of valuable biodiversity, and disproportionately affecting certain communities.  All of these must be acknowledged  and meaningfully addressed in climate action policy and practice.
  • End corporate impunity. Promote legally binding treaties on business and human rights, ensure robust consultation obligations and compliance mechanisms that carry legal sanction and fiscal penalties if not met in full, and enforce meaningful regulatory limits for environmental and social protection to the highest standards.

Case Studies: specifics from communities

Cape York, Australia

INDIGENOUS LAND RIGHTS & THE LITHIUM RUSH

An increase in lithium mining exploration permits are concerning Traditional land holder groups located in areas handed back for management on the Cape York Peninsula of Northern Queensland. Seventy one (71) mining exploration permits have been granted in Cape York. Much of the land is classified Aboriginal “freehold” land, which allows for exploration and traditional land owners have no decision making rights in the issuance of permits on these lands. The Olkola Aboriginal Corporation, a large landholder on the Cape, have plans for alternative futures to lithium ‘green’ extractivism, including the protection of core habitat of the endangered golden-shouldered parrot, or Alwal, which is an Olkola totem animal. Traditional groups are mobilising in response to demand an overhaul of the Native Title Act 1993 and legal battles are underway. For more information, view here

IMAGE: The Wenlock River at the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve. A portion of Cape York land handed to traditional owners is classified national park and protected, but about half is granted as ‘freehold’ and remains at the mercy of mining companies. Photograph: Russell Shakespeare/AAP

 

Salar de Atacama, Antofagasta, Chile

Lithium projects in this salt are run by SQM (Chile, China) and Albemarle (USA) making use mostly (but not only) of brine, while copper projects Minera Zaldívar (Antofagasta Minerals, Barrick) and Minera Escondida (BHP,  Rio Tinto) have made use of the largest amounts of fresh water since their operations started. SQM and Escondida are formally accused of environmental damage and excessive water extraction in several Salt Flats such as Atacama, Punta Negra and Llamará.

 

Extraction of massive amounts of fresh water and brine (180 million liters/day aprox.) near protected wetlands as well as human settlements equally composed by atacameño indigenous people and non-indigenous communities who depend on small-scale agriculture and tourism.

Neither proper environmental assessment nor Indigenous/Public consultation has ever been carried out for lithium extraction, and precautionary principle has not been respected. It’s also important to note that the lithium giant SQM has been linked to Pinochet’s dictatorship since its privatization and in democracy has been involved in corruption, fraud and illegal funding of several political campaigns including former President Michelle Bachelet and current President Sebastián Piñera. The latter has been recently denounced in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed during the social outbreak that started in October 2019. Currently, the same company is deploying a greenwashing campaign that mixes the local catholic church, recently created foundations and a local newspaper.

Salar de Maricunga, Atacama, Chile

Maricunga Salt Flat has suffered from the impacts of gold mining in the hands of Canadian Kinross, responsible for the desecation of about 70 hectares in the biological corridor  pantanillo-ciénaga redonda, part of the Ramsar Site Complejo Lacustre Laguna del Negro Francisco y Laguna Santa Rosa, the government has approved in the middle of the pandemic lithium projects without proper environmental assessment nor FPIC to the indigeous colla communities affected by these activities. This is because the companies don’t acknowledge the social impacts of brine extraction in this Salt Flat as they do with the atacameño people in Atacama Salt Flat, and that’s acceptable for the environmental authorities.

Currently the most advanced projects are:  Minera Salar Blanco S.A. owned by Australian  Lithium Power International Limited (51%), Chilean Minera Salar Blanco S.p.A. (31%) and Canadian Bearing Lithium Corp. (18%); and Sales de Maricunga, controlled by Grupo Errázuriz (55%) and Taiwanese Simbalik Group (45%).  

Salar de Coipasa, Oruro Dept., Bolivia

Located in Tarapacá region and crossed by the Bolivian border, Coipasa Salt Flat is under dispute since exploration works carried by the Canadian Lithium Chile were rejected by local Aymara communities because of the potential damage on wetlands that sustain both wildlife and cattle (alpacas). This conflict led the company to take legal actions against the Indigenous Community of Ancovinto. No Free, Prior and Informed Consultation have been applied and the local authorities denounce lack of support from the State of Chile and express their concern about deep divisions among communities as an effect of the agreements with Lithium Chile. 

Other ongoing and potential conflicts over the exploitation of Salt Flats in the Southern Cone are in the Argentinean provinces of Catamarca, Salta and Jujuy, and in the Bolivian Department of Potosí.

Thacker Pass, Nevada, USA

The proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine in Northern Nevada, United States of America, by the company Lithium Nevada/Lithium Americas is expected to destroy critical habitat, disrupt the nearby agricultural community’s ability to carry out their livelihoods, and destroy a significant cultural resources for the Fort McDermitt tribal community. The project was permitted without proper consultation or consent from the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe and many other tribes who have ties to Thacker Pass.  It was also permitted despite clear and strong opposition from the local, rural, agricultural communities of Orovada and Kings River Valley. Groundwater contamination is anticipated to persist in excess of 300 years if not actively treated indefinitely.​​​​​​​

Rhyolite Ridge, Nevada, USA


The proposed Rhyolite Ridge lithium-boron mine project in Esmeralda County, Nevada, United States of America, by the company Australian-owned Ioneer would very likely cause an endemic species to go extinct. The flower, Tiehm’s Buckwheat, is only known to exist within the area that  would be affected by the mine. Despite the mining company and regulatory agencies’s knowledge of this, they have persisted in their attempt to mine in that location, trying other tactics to get around responsibility towards the buckwheat species and state (and ultimately also global) biodiversity.  They also actively worked to shield the public from knowing about the existence of the endemic buckwheat, with this information only coming into public awareness due to a single agency whistle-blower and a Freedom of Information Act request.  

Jadar, Serbia

In 2004 Rio Tinto discovered lithium and borate deposits in the fertile valley of the Jadar river in west Serbia. Since then nothing much has been heard in public as the company quietly continued the research. At the end of 2019 the first drill holes for the research of the tailing waste area were made in Radjevina, neighboring region of the Jadar valley, which triggered concerns of the local community. At the same time, in December 2019 the public debate for the adoption of the spatial plan was held but the local community was not properly informed, so the Spatial plan was approved in February 2020. The Spatial plan is illegitimate in many ways: the majority of the local community was not informed of it, the project was not finalized at the moment (and still isn’t as for the May 2021) and the ore reserves weren’t declared. 

Based on such illegitimate plan the company continues the research, together with government institutions renames the agricultural land into construction land without owners’ consent (who suffer damage due to it) and starts buying off properties on the location of the planned mine threatening owners that if they don’t comply to sell their properties, they will be eventually taken away in the expropriation process even though the public interest was never declared for this project. 

As we can see, the basic human rights to be properly informed and make decisions concerning our future have not been respected. People’s lives, Rights of Nature and cultural heritage have been completely ignored and neglected for the sake of profit.

The local initiative that opposes the project demands for the abolition of the illegitimate Spatial plan and the permanent moratorium on lithium mines. 

At the moment three different companies are researching lithium across the country as we face the mining boom. 

We don’t want Nature and cultural heritage to be harmed and destroyed by harmful projects such as the Jadar project. Aware that green mining doesn’t exist and that lithium demand is everything but justified in the sense of climatic changes we are working on stopping this project hoping that this will help all other regions in Serbia to be saved from the harmful effects of unnecessary extractivism. Knowing that the only true change is the systematic change which rests on education, our task is not only to stop this one project but to advocate for the Rights of Nature, the Right to Say No and inform local communities of what extractivism really is. 

In the century where Water and Food have strategic value we firmly say No to Mine, Yes to Life

Mina do Barroso, Portugal

Spurred on by misleading claims about the Portuguese lithium reserves, the environmental and financial gains to be had,  magnified by  the ipromise of a value chain being built around it the Portuguese government bought into and heavily promoted mining, attracting the attention of mining companies all over the world. Misguided and misinformed politicians looking for quick political, economic and environmental fixes, coupled with a  permissive licensing system resulted in a surge of  exploration and mining licenses being issued to mining companies with varying degrees of experiences and capabilities. Furthermore, plans are afoot for an international lithium tender covering 8 Portuguese regions. Two of them are adjoining and centre around “Mina do Barroso” which together with another 8 licenses issued over the last few years are surrounded but excluded.

The proposed “Mina do Barroso” is located in the North of Portugal Barroso region which has  been recognised by FAO as a  Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Site. A number of lithium open pit mines are being planned in a large, green and water rich area, threatening the sustainable  way of living of the communities that have lived there for over  8 centuries. Licenses were issued and altered without effective  public consultation taking place resulting in an unopposed extensive and very aggressive prospection phase, feeding speculation and leading the AIM listed junior miner  Savannah Resources, who owns the license, to make fantastic  claims about the potential of the mine. Shocked, outraged  and concerned by the plans and the lack of government oversight and responsibility for licensing and monitoring, the community is determined to stop the mines at all cost. Currently we are in the middle of a 30- day public consultation of an over 6,000 page Environmental Impact Assessment. Should the EIA  be approved and the government plans go ahead, the whole GIAHS Barroso region is at risk, as are six  other equally large and environmentally sensitive areas in the north and centre of the country. 

Cáceres, Spain 

The mountain that borders the city of Cáceres “La Sierra de la Mosca” is an appalachian geological site, a mediterranean biodiversity shaw that keeps our city and our 95.000 people community healthy, posibiliting also many economic activities in respect with our environment. Our country is very dry, and this Mountain and the karstik sistem underfeet made possible the inhabitance here since our Neanderthal ancestors. 

The actors of the raw material demands finds this mountain definitely rich in lithium and other raw materials, and that’s why many companies struggle around since 2017, doing their best to ignore our local culture, needs, and environmental relation:

  • Valdeflores Project – Phase: extraction permits denied in 2021/4. Waiting for the restoration of the explored area. Company: australian Infinity Lithium Corporation and the spanish SACYR Company.
  • Ampliación a Valdeflores Project – Phase: Exploring permits were accepted. Collective demands were lodged. Still waiting for responses. Company: australian Infinity Lithium Corporation holding a 75% interest in the Joint Venture Tecnología Extremeña Del Lito S.L. (‘TEL’). 

There are many companies interested in the area of Valdeflores, that are waiting for Infinity Lithium to retreat:

  • Romolus Project – Phase: exploration permits solicited. Company: german AMG Lithium GmbH.  
  • Ampliación a Romolus – Phase: exploration permits solicited.  Company: german AMG Lithium GmbH.  
  • San José project – Phase: exploration permits solicited. Company: spanish Valoriza Minería S. L. (filial from spanish SACYR Company). 
  • Extremadura S. D. project – Phase: exploration permits solicited. Company: spanish Castilla Mining S. L. 

Projects in other areas of our mountain La Sierra de la Mosca, less than 5kms. to the city Cáceres, with needed minerals to obtain lithium carbonate:

  • Trasquilón Project – Phase: exploring permits been evaluated. Collective demands were lodge. Still waiting for responses. Standby. Company: spanish Grabat Energy.

Since 2017 when began the administrative procedure for Valdeflores project and Ampliación a Valdeflores project, the enterprise has said about this area to be the biggest lithium extractive potential in Europe, the third in the world, as they say about every new project they want to promote. For several times they announced many important amounts of investment, and even the posible construction of a lithium refining industry. 

Valdeflores project didn’t reach the extractive phase, due to the four years long social opposition, which has been pressed as necessary from local to european politicians and institutions to oppose the project. Valdeflores project is unrealizable and illegal because of its proximity to our city (less than 2kms.), and the only option for the regional government has been to cancel the permits, causing the actual crash of the australian Infinity Lithium Corporation in the ASX. 

They are still expected to restore the damages caused by their ilegal exploration works, with a court sentence beyond them. In response, the enterprise is going forward to demand the regional government. 

For the Ampliación de Valdeflores project, they got the exploration permits with many restrictions in 2020/11. It seems not that interting for them in terms of lithium extractivism, because the open-pite area is in Valdeflores project, but they can look for carbonate and others. 

For us, our land won’t be safe until all the demands are resolved, and our Mountain obtains an oficial protection that ensure us it will be free of mining threats for the future generations.

Cañaveral, Spain

– Las Navas project in Cañaveral – Phase: extractive permits accepted in 2020. Company: Lithium Iberia.

To show how the european politics are managing, see the acclamations by Phi4Tech: “Phi4tech, together with the regional President of Extremadura and the General Secretary for Industry in Spain, has formally announced in a press conference – on the 24th of March, 2021 – the first integrated battery project in Southern Europe, which includes in the same region, a lithium extraction and refining project – Lithium Iberia -, a nickel and cobalt extraction project – Aguasblancas -, a cathode manufacturing plant, and a 10 GWh cell manufacturing plant. The total investment for such project is 1000M€, out of which they have secured 600M€ already. Furthermore, this integrative project will offer 1300+ direct employment opportunities for the region.” (https://www.eba250.com/extremadura-hosts-southern-europes-first-battery-cell-factory-project/?cn-reloaded=1)

According to the European Raw Materials Politics, the regional government of Extremadura promotes the extractivism industry by exposing the exploitable lands and the “friendly administrations” in the public web http://sigeo.juntaex.es/portalsigeo/web/guest.

 

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