In Chile, the Covid-19 pandemic is raging with an unprecedented speed. There are more than 300,000 confirmed cases with one of the highest per capita infection rates of 13,000 cases for every 1 million people. The economy is severely experiencing the repercussions of Coronavirus-caused restrictions and the historically high national unemployment rate of 11.2% is an indicator of such damage. Chileans have took to the street to protest against the malfunctioning right-wing government of the billionaire president Sebastian Pinera and the police force has responded aggressively by shooting dead a young agitator.
Amid this Coronavirus chaos, the Chilean lithium sector is poised to economically expand itself due to an anticipated increase in demand. Albemarle, a North Carolina-based corporation and one of the two companies extracting lithium from the Chilean salt plain Salar de Atacama with Sociedad Química y Minera (SQM) or Chemical and Mining Society, said that “the current slump in prices is belying a looming supply shortfall, especially as expansion projects are delayed by the crisis”. TDK, a Japanese multinational electronics companies and battery giant, predicts that the global market is going to witness a surge in demand for lithium. Shigenao Ishiguro, the CEO of the company, told in an interview that “Digital transformation is a huge opportunity for us and I have no doubt that the coronavirus will push the world to go that direction at a faster pace,”.
In spite of Covid-19 pandemic, the battery market is expected to grow “at a compound annual growth rate of about 7% during 2019-2024. The market in cathode for lithium ion batteries, the most common rechargeable car battery, is expected to jump to $58.8 billion by 2024 from $7 billion in 2018”. According to Bloomberg, the pandemic can prove to be an opportunity for the lithium market “with at least some governments, including those of Germany and France, using virus recovery funds to help accelerate a transition from internal combustion engines to battery-powered alternatives. France will offer about 8 billion euros ($9 billion) to its auto sector to bolster support for electric vehicles; Germany’s stimulus package includes about 5.6 billion euros for the sector and will require gas stations to install charging units.”
A likely intensification of lithium exploitation in Chile does not bode well for the working class and the myriad indigenous communities such as the Atacameños, Licanantay, Colla, Aymara and Quechua living in the Atacama desert. The most recent manifestation of the exploitative practices of lithium mining companies has been the maintenance of “operational continuity” to achieve a minimal impact on output. This basically translates into a policy of profit maximization, brutally indifferent towards the existential conditions of workers. In the lithium mining region of Antofagasta, the Coronavirus positivity rate was a stupendous 46.1%. Along with this sheer infliction of necropolitical violence upon the working class, the indigenous people are also reeling under the pressures of lithium extraction in the form of a water crisis. While singular focus has been placed on the issues of water scarcity in urban areas, it is important to remember that indigenous communities living in Salar de Atacama too are coping with an acute water scarcity, artificially caused by lithium operations. In the aforementioned mining region, 65% of water has been consumed by lithium activities. This is one among the many environmental injuries sustained by the ecosystem of the Atacama desert due to the unhindered workings of lithium imperialism.
Instead of seeing the ongoing suppressive squeezing of the working class and indigenous communities in Chile as a one-off phenomenon, it is necessary that it be contextualized in the global structure of lithium imperialism. Lithium imperialism came to be installed as a fraction of global capital and primary commodity production due to two major developments – planetary mine and green extractivism. Firstly, planetary mine, as said by Martin Arboleda, “designates a convoluted terrain where fences, walls, and militarized borders coexist with sprawling supply chains and complex infrastructures of connectivity.” This denotes the establishment of an extractive economic exoskeleton on a planetary scale through the simultaneous use of violent and militarized techniques of oppression and policing.
Secondly, green extractivism refers to “the subordination of human rights and ecosystems to endless extraction in the name of “solving” climate change.” Lithium serves as an important modality for substituting fossil fuel extractivism with green extractivism and consistently maintaining a relentless system of commodification. Instead of “tackling the systemic bloating of northern economies and the excessive demands this places on the world’s resources.”, green lithium extractivism allows capitalists to stabilize the unequal imperialist architecture of core-peripheral countries. Tesla, for examples, uses the discourse of electronic vehicles to cloak its capitalistic carnage of Latin America with the cosmetic coverings of climate change […]