Illustration by Russell Hausfeld

This is a transcript of an interview conducted for Psymposia’s series “From Mining to Mushrooms,” a series exploring the infiltration of the psychedelic pharmaceutical industry by companies, investors, and executives from extractive industry. 

Read Part One, Two and Three. For a long list of psychedelic-mining industry ties, click here.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

 

Thea Riofrancos is a political scientist whose research has focused on political conflict related to extraction, energy, and infrastructure in a rapidly warming and politically unstable world. She also serves on the steering committee for Democratic Socialists of America for a Green New Deal. 

In her 2020 book, Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador, Riofrancos examined resource politics in Ecuador, reflecting on 15 months of ethnographic and archival fieldwork. Her current book project, Brine to Batteries, examines the societal and environmental implications of a global transition to more renewable energy sources. 

In this interview, Riofrancos discusses her research into renewable energy; the social and environmental impacts of lithium extraction, and; the complex dynamics at play between multinational extractive firms and the communities whose land they seek to extract resources from.

 

Can you tell me about your Brine to Batteries research, and the environmental and social impacts of lithium extraction? 

Thea Riofrancos: I’m interested in the supply chains of green technologies and my focus is on electric vehicles (EV’s) and lithium batteries. Obviously, lithium batteries are a component of electric vehicles, but they also are a component of renewable grids and storage systems. So, I’m interested in the supply chains behind the technologies that produce them and distribute them and I started with the most upstream part of the chain which is resource extraction, and specifically lithium. 

There are obviously many extracted minerals and elements that go into producing an EV but I chose lithium for various reasons. Some sort of arbitrary, some relating to the geography I’m most familiar with in terms of my expertise on Latin America. I’m not gonna start being a researcher on nickel mining in Indonesia, just because I don’t have a background in that. I chose things that are related to regional areas I am knowledgeable about beforehand. So, yeah, I went all the way to the extractive end of it but I am also interested in other nodes of the supply chain including all the way to how transit and grid systems are designed, for example, in the US. Also in the EU and other places in the world that are undergoing an energy transition. 

I’m interested both on the far upstream extractive end and also on the models of transit and grid design that are implemented closer to where consumption takes place. And everything in between, which is a lot, like refining, manufacturing, shipping, logistics, those kinds of things. I’m not—the project won’t be comprehensively about every node in the chain. 

That would be sort of—picking nodes that seem interesting either in their environmental or social impacts—so that’s the case with the extractive end. But also, some of the policymaking and geopolitical contention around where these supply chains are located in the world, there’s a lot of, conflict might be too strong a word, but, contentious discourse among state actors in different states of the world—primarily the EU, the US, and China—around wanting to secure or dominate or control these supply chains because they are seen as strategic for the 21st century and whatnot, so there’s a geopolitical angle. 

It’s a big project and the idea is to produce a book at some point. But, I’m beginning to—I’ve done 4 months of field work—but I have another couple years that I’ll be working on this. That’s really broadly what I’m interested in. Thinking about the global implications of an energy transition within the US for example, or in the EU, for that matter. How that affects other places in the world. So, that’s the really broad project.

Is lithium extraction more or less environmentally impactful than other extractive sectors?

We can definitely compare different extractive sectors in terms of how impactful they are. I’d say that oil stands out as the worst, both because it’s locally extremely contaminating and there has been apparently no way to prevent oil spills from happening. And also, it generates a huge amount of emissions—both in the extraction process and, of course, once it’s burned—contributing to climate change. 

But, I think that there are relative amounts of bad. It’s not better and worse. Everything that’s extracted, especially in the type of society and economy that we live in, has pretty bad impacts on the environment. I think that there are interesting tensions and trade-offs to think about with the fact that the renewable energy transition would mean extracting much less fossil fuels, but might involve more types of other extraction. I absolutely think decarbonization, and fast decarbonization, is extremely important despite that fact. But I think there are ways to decarbonize that involve more or less other resource use. 

I know I’m not answering directly your question about local impacts of lithium extraction and I’ll get to that in a second. But, just to say that there is a world or a future in which everyone individually owns an electric vehicle—that is actually a world that is pretty devastating to the environment, because of what it takes to produce an electric vehicle. Way more mined materials are used to make an electric vehicle than an internal combustion vehicle, by a long shot. Because of the copper wiring especially, but also because of battery materials. 

So, there is a world in which we have renewable energy, we power our transit by plugging it into the grid and charging it and x, y, and z, and that’s great for the climate crisis. But, it’s not great in terms of other environmental outcomes we might care about. And, there is yet another world in which we try to reduce how material and resource-intensive our transit system actually is—by having more public transit or mass transit or shared mobility or more biking. Stuff that is rather obvious, but the reason I’m saying this is because it’s not like, “OK we want to transition to renewable energy and that means electrifying transit and electrifying a lot of other things.” 

That means we inevitably have to use X quantity of resources, which is sort of the feeling you get if you read a lot of the news about EVs and lithium batteries and the commodities of lithium and things that go into them. It’s just a fact that we have to pull all this stuff out of the ground if we want to electrify. But, that is operating under a presumption of not only replicating our current model of transit, which is very car-dominant. But, also intensifying it—the idea that many more people around the world will own individual cars. So, I would prefer a different model of transit for many reasons, including that it’s less resource-intensive. Anyone reading a lot of this stuff could be left thinking there is no way to electrify transit without just extracting an enormous amount of stuff. But, again, that presumes a certain outcome and we should question that in general. 

About lithium in particular, the environmental and social impacts depend on the type of extraction. Both the type of deposit and the technology of extraction. What I am most familiar with are brine extraction techniques that involve removing lithium brine from underground wells and arraying it in evaporation ponds and letting solar radiation and wind do the work of evaporation, basically, and some chemical agents to quicken it. Then you have a more concentrated solution which is then further refined. That process, which predominates in the so-called “lithium triangle” in South America—not exclusively though, because there are geothermal and direct extraction techniques in Argentina. So, those aren’t in this category. But, most of these projects which are either ongoing or planned are brine extraction and evaporation, to my knowledge, at least. 

There are so many projects in Argentina that are in an extremely early stage so maybe if one counted them all, I’m not sure what the exact proportion of geothermal to this more traditional extraction tech I mention are. But right now, Chile is the number two producer of lithium in the world. It has a way larger lithium industry than Argentina does, at the moment. Argentina is growing and that could change in a number of years. But for now, in the region, the main extraction technique is the one that I said. And that one has a couple of problems: It is very water intensive.

There is some literal scientific confusion that is good-faith, because there are not enough  studies done of the region, so there’s not as much of the type of data that we would like there to be. But, there are a lot of bad-faith misperceptions on the part of industry officials that are like, “It has no impact on freshwater.” That’s not true. They are either saying that because they just want to lie or because whatever project they are working on, there aren’t sufficient studies about it. But, to hydrologists and geographers and geologists and people that study these brine formations, it’s pretty clear that—the overall consensus that I have seen in the scientific literature is that there is an impact on water. Freshwater. There is obviously an impact on brine water, because they are removing the brine water from the environment. 

The argument of industry people is that there is a non-porous barrier between brine water and freshwater that is produced by their differential densities. It’s not a physical barrier, but it’s a barrier that is produced by that density difference. They regard that as an impermeable barrier, so you can suck out as much brine as you want from the so-called nucleus or center of a salt flat, and the fresh water system which begins toward the perimeter of that salt flat is unaffected by that. That’s their argument. I’m not convinced by that from anything that I have read. I would be happy for that to be the case, it’s not like I want it to affect freshwater. But it seems like it does. And that is based on scientific and anecdotal evidence on the part of communities that live there, and it seems like that’s what you have come across. They’ve noticed a depletion or lowering of freshwater. 

How it works, and I’ll be very crude here, but you can read plenty of scientific studies out there. But, basically by removing the brine water from its aquifers, underground wells that it is collected in—the lithium-rich brine water—you create a sort of gravitational pressure on the freshwater that, whether or not that barrier between them is permeable is not at issue. That barrier could be impermeable, but it is moving. 

So, the fresh water aquifers are drawn down in ways that make it harder for farmers, or anyone, or species, because we are also talking about natural habitats, to access that water in the ways that they are used to accessing it. It is less—in the case of lithium as compared to copper—it is less about the direct use of freshwater for mineral processing, though every human activity uses fresh water, so having industrial lithium extraction uses fresh water. But it’s not as huge a part of the operations as copper, where you need fresh water to actually separate copper from the non-valuable rock. There is no other way to do it without water. Copper is extremely fresh water-intensive. 

But with lithium, you are using brine much more than you are using fresh water directly, but you are affecting the overall water balance and water access of these communities that are around salt flats. Then there are “knock-on effects” that happen as a result of that. So, you have—there has been reported and there is scientific study of this as well from the last couple years—of species loss, of species that are endemic to the region, species like normal-sized animals like flamingos. But, also micro-organisms as well, that are part of the ecosystem. So there’s been a variety of interesting and unique and endemic species in the areas that have seen their populations decrease. 

And, then there is sort of the social impact which is a little more complicated. But, I think the simple way to think about it, which will be pretty obvious to you, is that any time you have very asymmetric power relations like pretty low-income, ethnically-marginalized, Indigenous, and also mestizo—mixed Indigenous-European descent, which is some of the people in Argentine communities—that are rural, that are isolated, that have suffered a lot of state and economic neglect, these are pretty marginalized actors interacting with extremely well-financed foreign multinational firms. You have all sorts of possibilities or opportunities for political corruption, manipulation, cooptation, sewing division among community members that are more skeptical versus those that are offered jobs. 

It’s a very asymmetric relationship and when you don’t have state public institutions that are good or willing to regulate those situations, then it results in all sorts of social and political problems. It’s something to keep an eye out for. It might be a local politician being bribed by someone in order to get a permit, it might be them investing in so-called corporate social responsibility stuff where they might invest in building a soccer field in the community, but with the quid pro quo that the community doesn’t protest the water issues. That sort of stuff is extremely rampant in extractive sectors in general, because of that asymmetry, and because of often the lack of state regulatory muscle. It is no different in this extractive industry linked to renewables, and as well to clinical uses. That’s another set of issues. 

Then, the violations of Indigenous rights to consultation is a very common problem. The whole reason the right to prior consultation even exists in international law, as well as in national constitutions, as well as in Latin America, is because of the trampling of territorial rights on the part of extractive firms. This right exists in order to avoid this situation but the problem is that this right, though many Latin American countries have it in their legal system, is not really properly enforced. That’s the case in Chile, and I would bet in Argentina. 

That’s definitely an issue in Argentina, from what I understand.

Got it. Yeah. Definitely confirms similar patterns to Chile and other extractive industries. And, the last thing, which I’m not totally sure applies in Argentina—Argentina has a smaller lithium sector compared to Chile, but in Chile, the lithium workers have faced labor repression, especially from SQM, which is one of the two companies currently operating in Chile. Repression in terms of trying to organize unions and being fired or retaliated against in a number of ways. And, the company basically has a company union that they, essentially, sponsor and so the situation for collective bargaining is not very good. That’s another set of issues that might be less relevant in Argentina because the sector as a whole is smaller and there are not as many workers. But, it might still be an issue.

So, I think that that is all in terms of the local effects I can think of off the top of my head. 

How prevalent is it for mining and extraction companies to claim that they are needed in less developed areas to create social change? An executive I have been in contact with said he thought his extractive company being there would help the area’s drug and addiction problem. 

Yeah. That’s another very common discourse in the extractive industry world. That extractive sectors are the reason for economic development and or will provide economic development in the areas where they are trying to start new projects. The track record is really poor. And again, I say this based on, I think, pretty objective analysis of the sectors and of just the social science research on them. There are lots of reasons they don’t result in a lot of economic development—one is that really asymmetric situation that I mentioned. 

It’s hard for communities to put pressure on the firms in ways that are autonomous and lead to communities getting good agreements with the firms. It has happened. Communities that are super organized have been able to get important concessions from extractive firms. But, again, that is starting from a position of the firm doing something that destroys the community’s environment or has undermined other livelihoods, like agriculture, so the community organizes in order to get the firm to change its behavior in some way. But, the reason the community has to organize is because the firm is doing something that is negative for the community. So, even in the cases of relative success that must be given credit, those are the results of the firm doing something that is bad for local development.

In general, resource extraction, especially in modern day, is not very labor-intensive; it’s a more capital-intensive sector. There is a lot of machinery and robotics and new forms of machine learning and AI. Every year it gets more capital- and tech-intensive and less labor-intensive. So, it’s not a big job creator, is one thing. The jobs that it does generate are very bifurcated. You have jobs that are higher paid and more professionalized, like engineering, and coding, and geography, and GIS mapping. Those are white collar professional jobs and those folks may not come from within the community. They may, but oftentimes they don’t, because these are communities that are historically marginalized and do not have access to higher education. 

So, it’s likely they come from other areas in the country, if not other areas of the world, including where the company is from—whatever country that is, whether its China or Spain or the US or Canada. They will bring their professionals with them from that other place. The other type of work it creates is not good work. It is highly precarious, informalized work that is sort of in the services sector around the mines. Anyone who owns a little restaurant, or could be sex work—and that is not to shit on sex work, which I think should be legal—but it’s not generally, in these contexts, the best profession for folks. There are a lot of women who suffer abuse and violence, not just because they are sex workers, but in general in extractive areas. Because they tend to be super male, in terms of the overall employment. 

So, yeah, there are people who sell services of various sorts, whether food or sex or accommodations. Maybe it’s even technical services like consulting or whatever. But it’s not very high paid necessarily. And, it’s just people that are there that are trying to make ends meet and interact with that sector, but the work is pretty informalized, not well regulated, and not necessarily very safe. So, that’s another type of work created by extractive sectors, but I don’t think that we would call it good for human development, in general. 

They don’t really create good dignified work for local people. And, there are exceptions everywhere, and there are definitely proud mining communities in areas of the world that really identify with mining as a form of labor. It’s complex. But in general, especially in the contemporary era, these sectors are more capital-intensive and don’t create as many jobs as they generally promise to. 

The other thing is the boom and bust cycle of commodity markets, and lithium is no different. In fact, lithium is in a big downswing now and there is hope that prices will rise again, on the part of investors. A year ago there were very high prices. Any primary commodity on global markets is very volatile in terms of pricing, which means there is a boom and bust cycle to investment which can be really devastating to communities, because even if there’s good times when there is growth in the sector and there is more investment coming in, and that does generate some local and national economic growth, it’s gonna dry up at some point because that’s just how these commodity markets work. It’s a very unstable source of economic livelihoods and of tax revenues for localities and countries. 

The list goes on so I don’t wanna overdo it with too much info. But there is very little evidence that extractive sectors are good for local or national development. I think you could—it’s basically impossible to argue that they are good for local development because of the reasons I suggested, and because they tend to undermine other more potentially stable livelihoods like agriculture—maybe even tourism. In some cases there are conflicts in places that may have thriving tourist economies, but when mining comes in that obviously is not good for tourism for a lot of reasons. So, at the local level, it’s very hard to make that argument. And the exceptions are generally because the community was really organized, or because the state was really good at regulating. 

Nationally, it’s a little more complex. I think there are a variety of outcomes. There are some countries that are resource-dependent that have done a super good job of managing their resource wealth and redistributing it and it’s not always, in a given case, an absolute negative for national economic development. But overall, it’s all subject to those same dynamics. The volatility, difficulty planning, and the countries that have generally benefited more from resource extraction are countries that are otherwise affluent and have well-institutionalized states. 

A country like Canada has a lot of resource wealth and is super dependent on its resource wealth. But, it has a very different position in the global economy, a different level of affluence. It’s incomparable to compare it to, say, Argentina, which just emerged from a very wrenching debt-negotiation process where international creditors were about to leave it to just die. These countries are in very asymmetric relations with firms, with international creditors, and with more powerful states. For countries like that, extraction-led development or extraction-led economies have not overall been good for economic or human development, I would say. 

Are there less environmentally harmful techniques for lithium extraction?

You might be able to argue that the geothermal and direct extraction techniques—and apparently maybe there are ways to apply these direct extraction techniques to non-geothermal deposits—I don’t fully understand—but they do seem less environmentally impactful. 

There’s no such thing as zero impact. You can certainly have no-carbon or very low-energy geothermal extraction, so that’s true. But, zero carbon is not the same as no environmental impact, even if carbon is one of the main things we are concerned about in the world. But, yeah, I think there are better and worse extraction techniques and the main problem from my perspective is that governments in the global Norths and also in the global Souths, for various reasons, haven’t forced companies to improve and have more environmentally friendly techniques—because companies won’t generally do this on their own. Of course a geothermal source lends itself to this, so a company might do that voluntarily. But, in general, companies should be forced to do better and they are not right now. But, we’ll see if that evolves a bit.

In the region I have been reading about, near the provinces of Jujuy and Salta in Argentina, there are complaints about Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC) rights not being enforced correctly, and about a lack of environmental impact study reports. The executive I am in contact with has pushed back and cited all these studies done by mining companies. The communities don’t seem to think that there have been enough studies done, and the Indigenous communities in these areas don’t seem to feel they have been properly consulted. It seems that the people who have been consulted have been governmental groups, mainly. In reading some of the literature, there seems to be a common experience that the communication between extractive firms and communities is very one-sided.

Yeah. Even in the case where prior consultation is being enforced, oftentimes if you actually look at the processes, it consists of corporations giving an informational presentation to communities and there being some Q&A time and then that is sort of it. 

There isn’t really the option for communities to express concerns that result in the project not happening. It is very directed by the corporation. 

I haven’t attended one of these myself, because it is kind of hard to get into them as an outside researcher. But, I have read all the documentation of them—just sort of exactly what has occurred. They are oftentimes what I have said. There are definitely better prior consultation practices out there where the government has more of a role in making it a more equal conversation, or when communities have more of a role or their representatives do. They’re not all bad. 

But, even when prior consultation is enforced, that characterization is often the case. And, especially when it is not enforced and what you have instead is again so-called corporate social responsibility, which is just a name given by corporations to efforts to improve their relationships with communities. But those can be propaganda, like distributing pamphlets about how great mining is. Or, it can be like building the soccer field. But, it’s not really an equitable exchange in any way. 

So, often, it is under that kind of banner that firms interact with communities and when they do, it is a very controlled conversation, which is why we have, over the past decade or two, increasing protests on the part of communities that are living on or near planned extraction sites. Communities don’t feel like they have much of another option other than protest or in some cases to elect a local government that is more critical of extraction. 

At least in the case I have been researching, it seems that the local government in Jujuy is all about getting mining into their community. And, the provincial government has created a group called JEMSE which profits from being a part of mining operations. 

Oftentimes, there are cases of companies setting up organizations that are called community organizations, or setting up foundations that are called community organizations or local governments doing similar. Or even communities setting up organizations that are very pro-mining. Whereas other community members might be anti-mining. It’s very hard to tell from the surface sometimes who an organization represents but you can sort of—it’s good to be skeptical of these organizations because when you look into how they are financed and who is on their board, it becomes less clear that they represent civil society. 

Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on?

Only thing to keep in mind with Argentina versus Chile is this one important difference. Aside from the size of the sector, in Argentina there is a center-left government in power and in Chile there’s a right-wing government. I don’t know how much that actually affects the lithium sector, but those are things to keep in mind. 

But, another important difference that applies to all extractive industries, including lithium, but also Argentina’s mining sector is—maybe not all extractive industries, but definitely mining and lithium—is that provinces in Argentina—the equivalent of US states—have independent authority. So, Argentina is a federal system that’s not dissimilar from the US. Significant political and economic authority at the subnational level. That’s not the case for Chile, which is super centralized. So, in Argentina there are real differences in how provinces approach mining. It’s worth noting that provincial governments contract directly with these mining companies, which is more asymmetric than the national government doing so. So, you have—it’s easier to corrupt local governments, generally. There’s a lot of problems there. 

One positive way that it complicates things is that if communities [in Argentina] are able to leverage political power enough to protest their provincial government, or even replace it with a more environmentally friendly provincial government, they have that power to shape that at a local level in a way that in Chile they don’t. In Chile, all that matters is who is in power nationally—which isn’t to say that local protest doesn’t matter, but it will only affect, the president caring about it. But, in Argentina, if you do local protests and the provincial governor takes notice, it might be easier for communities to push and have leverage over them. So, that’s an interesting difference. 

To find out more about Thea Riofrancos’ research, visit her website at www.theariofrancos.com.

 

We are a 100% independent voice in drug journalism. Our content is free and we never have corporate ads, sponsored content, or sketchy affiliate programs.


This means we require support from readers like you - the grass roots - so we can remain independent and keep digging into the biggest issues with no strings attached. You can make a huge impact by supporting us for as little as $2 a month. 


Support us on Patreon today


Russell Hausfeld

Russell Hausfeld

Russell Hausfeld is an investigative journalist and illustrator living in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has a Bachelor's degree in Journalism and Religious Studies from the University of Cincinnati.