Fuel for Thought
Development of largest lithium deposit in the world threatens indigenous rights
Nov 04 2023
In the vast, arid terrains of Nevada, a modern-day gold rush is underway. But this time, miners aren't after conventional gold, they're after “white gold”: lithium ore. In Silver Peak, for example, Nevada's lithium heartland, production is set to double in the next few years to meet the soaring demand for clean energy solutions. The state government holds over 17,000 claims for lithium prospecting, underscoring its potential to be the Wall Street of lithium extraction and the Biden administration appears to be gearing up to throw all of its might behind the region, invoking emergency statutes from the Cold War to scale up domestic lithium production. As the world grapples with climate change, lithium, crucial for the batteries powering electric vehicles and storing energy generated renewably, represents a light at the end of the tunnel – not without its shadows, though.
Firstly, while it’s important for the green transition, lithium mining can have a significantly disruptive impact on ecologies. The most common form of lithium extraction, which dominates operations in Latin America's "lithium triangle" (Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile), for example, involves evaporating mineral-rich brine, which is extremely water-intensive. This process can deplete nearby water sources, affecting local communities, agriculture, and overall ecosystem balance. Furthermore, toxic chemicals used in the process or unearthed during mining can contaminate water sources. Mining operations, whether open-pit mines or vast evaporation ponds, significantly alter landscapes. This disruption can lead to soil contamination, erosion, and the destruction of habitats for plants and animals. The Atacama Salt Flat, for example, has been impacted by lithium extraction activities, affecting flamingo populations, among other native species. Dust and pollutants from mining operations can degrade air quality. The transport of materials and the use of heavy machinery contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, affecting global climate patterns. Lithium processing uses various chemicals that, if not properly managed, can be released into the environment, impacting wildlife and human health. These substances may be harmful or alter the chemical composition of soils and water bodies. The cumulative effects of habitat destruction, water, and soil pollution can lead to a decline in regional biodiversity. Both plant and animal species can be threatened, creating imbalanced ecosystems and affecting species reliant on these habitats.
It will come as no surprise, then, that those First American communities on whose land these mines are built, find these developments unconscionable. This anger is perhaps most palpable in northern Nevada's Thacker Pass, where a proposed large-scale lithium mining project threatens the land rights, environmental sanctity and cultural heritage of indigenous peoples. Thacker Pass hosts one of the largest known lithium deposits in the United States, and therefore in the world. The Numu, the indigenous stewards of the region who will receive no compensation and have been given no authority on the extent or the practices of the new mine, have been joined by other First American communities and advocates in stating that this new project is yet another repetition of their historical disenfranchisement in North America. They argue that the ongoing lithium mining endeavours represent an expropriation of their ancestral lands and an affront to their heritage, promising irreversible damage to a culturally significant site laden with ancestral grief. The area is loaded with cultural memory, known as Peehee Mu’huh, which translates to "Rotten Moon", the site of a brutal massacre suffered by the Numu at the hands of the 1st Nevada Cavalry in 1865. Around 30 to 50 people, many women and children, were murdered. This is why many advocates have stated that this development is akin to opening a mine on a cemetery.
In response to the mining activities, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe have mobilized efforts to safeguard their heritage, petitioning for Thacker Pass's recognition under the National Register of Historic Places. However, their endeavours have encountered bureaucratic resistance, with Michon Eben, a tribal historic preservation officer, criticizing the lack of response from federal agencies responsible for such cultural designations. "Lithium Americas is already conducting disruptive operations on this sacred ground," Eben states, expressing frustration at the slow administrative processes. "What remains for us to salvage if the cultural heritage is being eroded as we speak?"
Perhaps the most important parallel in American history, though there are many, would be the discovery of oil on (what remained of) the Osage Nation’s ancestral lands in 1894. As one of a batch of commodities that secured American global hegemony in the 20th century, it mirrors the situation in Thacker Pass – but the Osage (initially) received substantial compensation and authority in recognition of their claims to the land, instantly crowning them one of the wealthiest groups in the United States. With lithium poised to become the oil of the 21st century, there is substantial precedent for fairness and equity even where a whole lot of money can be made through disregard.
And there’s a lot of money to be made. Despite producing around 5,000 tons annually, Silver Peak's contribution barely scratches the surface of burgeoning global demand. Projections suggest that millions of electric vehicles will grace American roads by 2030, necessitating a domestic lithium supply surge. The current output, even when doubled, falls short of these requirements; forecasts estimate a fortyfold increase in the coming decade should countries adhere to Paris agreement commitments. This unprecedented demand requires a significant boost in American lithium production, currently a meagre 1% of global output.
There are political pressures, too, as American reliance on lithium from geopolitical rivals could make it vulnerable in the medium term. With the Democratic administration channelling over $370 billion into renewable energy projects, the strategy is clear: repatriate the lithium supply chain. This effort is part of a larger policy aiming to regain control over crucial technological resources and curb dependency on foreign entities.
But the story of Thacker Pass is not unique, it’s part of a global process in which indigenous claims to land and resources are disregarded in favour of industrial interests. From Argentina to Chile, native communities worldwide are grappling with similar intrusions, often leading to contentious standoffs with authorities. In the United States, activists and Native Americans, unified in their opposition, have established protest camps at Thacker Pass, such as the recent Ox Sam Camp, which met with aggressive dispersal tactics and ensuing legal confrontations.
Arlan Melendez, chair of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, highlights the broader narrative of exploitation underpinning this issue, referencing legislation from the 1872 Mining Act to the Dawes Act of 1887 that systematically deprived Native Americans of their lands and resources. "This cycle of dispossession and neglect continues, with profits siphoned from our ancestral territories, leaving behind nothing but environmental devastation and cultural erosion," Melendez laments.
The lithium rush, then, is at a crossroads that almost all of history’s most prized commodities have faced before. Whilst it promises to prevent the worst forms of climate catastrophe, it is fast becoming yet another resource extracted by riding roughshod over communities whose rights have long been denied. Still in its infancy, there is still time to ensure the lithium industry not only serves climate justice but social justice, too.
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