White gold: without withholdings, a wave of foreign firms arrives in the Puna to extract lithium

White gold: without withholdings, a wave of foreign firms arrives in the Puna to extract lithium

By Gustavo Sarmiento

They call it "white gold." The mineral of the future. Although we must not go so far ahead: in the first quarter of this year it increased in value by 47% and the ton exceeds $ 7,600. All eyes are on lithium. With it batteries are made for electronic elements, from cell phones to automobiles, and it is used for energy storage. Argentina has 20% of the world's deposits. And although in recent years state projects had been announced to give it added value, the removal of withholdings and the rising price are an unbeatable lure for mining companies. The wave of foreign private companies that voraciously enter the extractivism of raw materials has already started. What is lost is the lithium project as a national industry.

On February 12, the Argentine president announced the release of withholdings for mining companies. The search for white gold led to a meeting of the president with the CEO of Canadian firm Enirgi Group, Wayne Richardson, in September. The businessman announced that at the end of the year the construction of the world's largest lithium plant will begin in Salta, in the Salar del Rincón, at 3,660 meters above sea level. With an investment of 300 million dollars, they hope to obtain 50 thousand tons of lithium carbonate per year, which in 2019 will generate more than 300 billion dollars in exports. They are not the only ones. "Practically 100% of the salt flats are covered with concessions," said the Secretary of Mining of Salta, Ricardo Salas, when giving the news. According to official estimates, more than 128 million tons of lithium carbonate would be available in Argentina.

The "Saudi Arabia of lithium" is made up of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. In Bolivia (which accounts for 40% of the deposits) its processing is managed by the State, and most of it is used to provide renewable energy to the population. In Chile (with 20% of world reserves), a scandal between companies and officials stopped the concessions. In this framework, Argentina emerges as the new Mecca for mining companies, which transport raw material to the Pacific ports.

SDIC (China), Posco (South Korea), Galaxy y Orocobre (Australia), Eramet (France), FMC Lithium (USA) and Mitsubishi (Japan) have already informed the Macri government of the decision to deepen the "advance" in the salt flats of the Puna. "We think the changes that are taking place are excellent. Now Argentina is much more attractive," said Patricio de Solminihac, executive director of SQM (Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile), when announcing the Caucharí-Olaroz project in Jujuy. The firm was questioned in 2012 when his brother Hernán favored it while he was Chilean Minister of Mining.

Miguel Bravo is an architect, an expert in alternative energy. Three years ago he emigrated to the United States. He was developing electric cars in Argentina, but the previous government denied him the automotive terminal decree. Then he created the Bravo Motor Company in Silicon Valley, a region whose main investor is the State of California itself. In 2011, he offered Minister Lino Barañao to create a lithium battery factory to supply vehicle development, but he had no response. “All the announcements are for extractive investments abroad. It is more primarized. What they do is accelerate the looting, "he tells Tiempo. “Then there are false advertisements such as Y-TEC (the technology company created by the management of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in the interaction of YPF and Conicet), which announces for the umpteenth time a supposed lithium battery factory, but that still has no investment ”.

The provinces, in charge of managing their natural resources, reduce their actions to participate in what is obtained by the concessionaires. In Salta with Remsa, in Jujuy with the state company Jemse, which obtains 8% of private profits.

One of the potentials of the lithium value chain had focused on the Connect Equality plan: the netbook batteries had lithium cells of national assembly. At the beginning of the year, the Ministry of Education, headed by Esteban Bullrich, fired 60 people from the plan, and the delivery of computers was paralyzed.

The construction of the Technological Development Center in Palpalá (Jujuy), which was financed by the former Ministry of Planning, was also frozen. "Our expectation is that the building be completed and young researchers from the country and abroad will come," asked this week the director of the Institute of Physical Chemistry of Materials, Environment and Energy of the UBA, Ernesto Calvo, during the III International Congress of Lithium organized in the capital of Jujuy.

“It is clear that lithium is the battery of the future. We cannot waste this opportunity, ”says Daniel Barraco, Conicet research physicist. He points to the industrialization of the mineral: “It is time to make the batteries. If the country does not manufacture them, in 20 years it will have a big problem, because the automotive market alone will demand 15 billion dollars to change the batteries. We are capable of doing them in the country ”.

In 1912 Argentina patented its first electric vehicle. A century later, the law that makes them official is paralyzed in Congress. In the macrista administration there is an internal one among ministers. The head of Environment, Sergio Bergman, is promoting the advancement of electric cars, especially due to the commitment given in the Paris Agreement to reduce the emission of gases by 2020. They are opposed by Guillermo Dietrich, Minister of Transportation, owner of a car dealership, and Juan José Aranguren, with the oil companies behind. Their differences were seen in the recent tender to purchase electric buses. It was going to be 400, it ended up being 50.

At the World Transport Forum in Germany in June, Dietrich argued that climate change “cannot be solved with electric vehicles. They can be very attractive and useful for marketing, but they are also very expensive ”.

“It seems that the destiny of our country is to export soybeans and lithium, all primarized, and then buy innovation. In this context, it sounds more than logical that they reduce the budget in Science ”, says Bravo, adding:“ It is inexplicable that the withholdings on mining have remained. Taxes are taken from something whose value has doubled. There was no need. ”.

Environmental concern

The other side of lithium extraction is environmental concern, due to the millions of liters of water generated by the diffusion of salts into freshwater aquifers and the arrival of floods in nearby towns. In 2010, 33 indigenous communities that inhabit the Salinas Grandes, between Salta and Jujuy, filed a lawsuit against both states and the companies, demanding compliance with their rights of participation and consultation. Mining activity explodes again this year, with advertisements that residents saw in the media, without being consulted. They denounce that the farms advance their economic, social and cultural activities. Most of them work from grazing animals and extracting salt.

“The communities have found out through the media. By law, they must be respected and a consultation protocol must be followed, even in the exploration phase, ”revealed Alicia Chalabe, the lawyer who represents them.


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