Lithium in Argentina: social participation for its sustainable development

12 December 2023

The mining industry in Argentina is growing considerably—according to official data, by December 2022, the highest level of exports since 2012 was obtained, reaching 4.981 million dollars[1], mainly due to the extraction of lithium, which accounted for 23% of total mining exports.[2] Lithium is considered an essential resource for the energy transition. It is the main mineral used in the production of electric vehicle batteries and is a core component of clean energy storage. As such, it is an in-demand resource and is expected to become increasingly more valuable in the future.[3] Lithium is often presented within Argentina as a strategic resource that can provide significant opportunities for socioeconomic growth and technological advance”.[4] However, its exploitation presents significant challenges in environmental and social terms.

While the mining industry can contribute to economic growth, negative consequences can arise from the expansion of mining projects, such as forced migration due to lack of access to clean water or other environmental problems, local violence, changes in social structure patterns, increasing demands on both national and provincial systems that are not prepared for it. To avoid harmful consequences that may be irreversible in the future —and to ensure inclusive and sustainable development—it is essential to guarantee the participation and involvement of communities throughout the whole process. Consultations and public hearings, environmental impact assessments and participatory monitoring are some of the key mechanisms needed to engage the communities in any mining project.

Argentina is a signatory to several international commitments that seek to guarantee social participation in extractive industries, such as the ILO convention No.169. However, past experiences in the exploitation of other natural resources, including current lithium projects, show that in practice, the promise of participation in these processes has not yet been fulfilled. While there is a general regulatory framework that establishes community consultation on these kinds of projects, in practice there are no regulations in place. This means that either consultation does not take place or when it does, the necessary elements to ensure a real and effective participatory process are not included.

Lithium in Argentina

Argentina is the world’s fourth largest lithium producer, after Australia, Chile and China. The country is part of the “lithium triangle”, together with Bolivia and Chile, which concentrates around 53% of the world’s deposits of this mineral.[5] As a result, Argentina should be playing an important role in both leading and contributing to the global energy transition. This mineral is extracted from brine deposits underneath vast salt flats and has been at the centre of the global lithium mining boom. There is a rapid expansion of new projects and concessions awarded, particularly in the northern provinces. In March 2023, 38 lithium mining projects were at various stages of development[6], from only two projects in 2008.[7]

In Argentina, lithium is usually presented as a strategic resource that can provide significant opportunities for socioeconomic growth and technological advance. National and subnational governments have supported the expansion of the lithium mining market and encouraged downstream technological linkages. Nonetheless, with the increase of lithium, environmental effects and social tensions have grown.[8]

Poder Ciudadano has highlighted the critical role that inclusive consultation and engagement processes with the local communities play in avoiding or reducing detrimental environmental and social impacts and, consequently, ensuring a sustainable and responsible energy transition.[9]

A just energy transition will only be feasible if the exploitation of the natural resources used for this purpose is sustainable and respectful of indigenous people and local communities.

The legal framework for community participation

Argentina has different mechanisms for participation and consultation in public affairs, established in various regulations at the national and subnational levels. These include popular consultation, referendum, access to public information, popular initiative, participatory budget, public hearing and participatory elaboration of regulations, among others.[10]

Regarding the management of natural resources, participation is guaranteed by national and international regulations. Some of note include:

The Escazú Agreement is a regional human and environmental rights instrument that seeks to address some of the most urgent current challenges in Latin America, such as the intensive exploitation of environmental assets, socio-environmental conflict, the situation of vulnerable groups and the rights of human rights defenders in environmental issues.[11] The Agreement, adopted in 2018 is widely considered a landmark for environmental rights protection. Article 7 of the Agreement specifically refers to the state’s duty to ensure open and inclusive participation in environmental decision-making processes.

Likewise, one of the instances of participation that must be considered in the processes for the acquisition of mining rights was established in ILO Convention No. 169, ratified by Argentina through Law Nº 24.071/92. The ILO Convention states that indigenous communities must be consulted on measures that may positively or negatively affect their collective rights. However, it should be noted that this instrument has not been regulated by Argentinian law, and implementation protocols do not yet exist.

In line with Convention No. 169, Article 75, paragraph 17 of Argentina’s Constitution supports the participation of indigenous peoples in the management of natural resources in their territories. There is also a Consultative and Participatory Council of Indigenous Peoples created by the National Decree N°672/16, whose functions include proposing a draft regulation of the right to free, prior and informed consultation, as established in ILO Convention No. 169. Among other issues, the consultation must be carried out by providing all the necessary tools to be informed, with sufficient and broad knowledge of the matter to be consulted, providing comprehensible information and in the language of the people or community. The main objective of this consultation process is for indigenous and tribal peoples to be able to give their free, prior and informed consent to decisions which may affect them in some way.

The rules are there. But what happens in practice?

It is evident that Argentina has a sound legal framework to enhance social participation. However, all these conventions and laws need to be put into practice, as the social participation of communities is not guaranteed.

Indeed, communities complain about the lack of consultations and have reported the manipulation of free and informed public consultation processes, including pressure and physical attacks on community leaders to obtain their consent for mining projects.[12] At the same time, in many cases in which they are consulted, communities do not have the technical knowledge necessary to fully understand the complexity of, for example, Environmental Impact Assessment Reports. Finally, the State’s intervention in these processes to mediate between communities and corporations is limited; as a result, the power imbalance between communities and companies persists, without sufficient government oversight to mining activities.

Lithium exploitation does not seem to be an exception to the lack of meaningful social participation, as shown by a study in two of the most advanced lithium extraction projects in the Argentinean Puna, located in the Olaroz-Caucharí salt flats in the province of Jujuy.[13] The report reveals that:

  • social and environmental impacts of the projects were not sufficiently considered by the local government;
  • the free and informed public consultation with the communities did not comply with international standards and national legislation;
  • the affected communities did not have access to the information they needed to make informed decisions about the project; and
  • that the provincial government have been absent in some stages of the consultation process, lacking the intermediation of an impartial third party, a role that implies a non-transferable responsibility for the State.

Final words

It is extremely important to put into practice the legal framework on social participation in lithium projects in Argentina, considering that it is a community’s right and State’s obligation to inform and hear them. In addition to this being an inalienable right, in situations where communities are not duly informed and heard, the possibilities of social conflict may increase considerably. The impact of not respecting social participation mechanisms—such as free, prior and informed consultation with indigenous communities—weakens the respect and exercise of their rights in a democratic system. Companies, civil society, communities and governments must work together to improve the management of natural resources, generating situations of social equity and strengthening mechanisms to prevent and sanction corruption.

At Poder Ciudadano, we maintain that if lithium is to be exploited in Argentina for economic development and to support a fair energy transition, it is necessary to ensure that the process of exploration, exploitation and closure of projects is based on the highest standards of transparency, integrity, accountability, social participation and respect for human rights. The energy transition should be socially and environmentally sustainable in both the extraction and processing value chain.

[1] Ministerio de Economía (2022). “Las exportaciones mineras alcanzaron el nivel más alto desde 2012”. Available at: https://www.argentina.gob.ar/noticias/las-exportaciones-mineras-alcanzaron-el-nivel-mas-alto-desde-2012

[2] Ministerio de Economía (2022). “Las exportaciones mineras alcanzaron el nivel más alto desde 2012”. Available at:https://www.argentina.gob.ar/noticias/las-exportaciones-mineras-alcanzaron-el-nivel-mas-alto-desde-2012

[3] https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/charts/total-lithium-demand-by-sector-and-scenario-2020-2040

[4] Transparency International’s Accountable Mining Programme (2022) What does the energy transition mean for the mining sector? Five trends to understand corruption risks in the extraction of transition minerals”. Available at: https://transparency.org.au/what-does-the-energy-transition-mean-for-the-mining-sector/ 

[5] U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2023. Available at: https://pubs.usgs.gov/periodicals/mcs2023/mcs2023-lithium.pdf

[6] Datos Argentina (2023), “Proyectos mineros de litio en Argentina”.  Available at: https://datos.gob.ar/dataset/produccion-proyectos-mineros-litio-argentina-tablero-global-litio—siacam/archivo/produccion_630098dd-d50b-4034-969a-c8d59492fb52

[7] Transparency International Australia (2022:21). “What does the energy transition mean for the mining sector? Five trends to understand corruption risks in the extraction of transition minerals”. Available at: https://transparency.org.au/what-does-the-energy-transition-mean-for-the-mining-sector/.

[8] Transparency International Australia (2022:21).

[9] Poder Ciudadano (2020). “Riesgos de Corrupción en Concesiones Mineras. Oportunidades para la Integridad y Transparencia en el Sector Minero en Argentina”. Available at:  http://poderciudadano.org/publicaciones/PoderCiudadano_RiesgosCorrupcionConcesionesMineras.pdf

[10] Poder Ciudadano, Asociación Civil Por La Igualdad Y La Justicia, Asociación Por Los Derechos Civiles, Foro De Periodismo Argentino, Fundación Cambio Democrático, Fundación Directorio Legislativo (2016:201). “Manual para la Incidencia de la Sociedad Civil en Políticas Públicas”. Available at: https://www.poderciudadano.org/libros/manual-aliar-WEB.pdf

[11] FARN (2020:255). “Informe Ambiental FARN”, Capítulo 5: “Acuerdo de Escazú: la importancia de un nuevo acuerdo de derechos para la Argentina”. Available at: https://farn.org.ar/iafonline2020/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/IAF_ONLINE_2020_CAP_5.1_ok.pdf

[12] Poder Ciudadano (2020:74). “Riesgos de corrupción en concesiones mineras. Oportunidades para la integridad y transparencia en el sector minero en Argentina”. Available at: https://poderciudadano.org/publicaciones/PoderCiudadano_RiesgosCorrupcionConcesionesMineras.pdf

[13] FARN (2019:3). “Extracción de litio en Argentina: un estudio de caso sobre los impactos sociales y ambientales”. Available at: https://farn.org.ar/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/DOC_LITIO_ESPAÑOL.pdf

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