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Is the extraction of lithium in the Jequitinhonha River Valley worth so much sacrifice?

BY RICARDO VERDUM FOR INDIGENOUS DEBATES

Supported by transnational economic sectors, the government of Jair Bolsonaro deregulated lithium mining. Companies settled in Jequitinhonha and Mucuri river valleys, a region that represents 8 percent of the mineral's international reserves. Under the guise of job creation, the project encroaches on the territories of the Aranã, Maxacali, Pankararu, and Pataxó peoples. Among progressive sectors, few have questioned the necessity of sacrificing the environment and local communities to supply minerals for the international energy transition.

 On July 5, 2022, Bolsonaro’s government signed Decree No. 11.120, deregulating the foreign trade of lithium mineral, lithium-based organic and inorganic chemicals, metallic lithium, and lithium alloys and derivatives. Export and import operations of lithium were no longer subject to standards, restrictions, limits, or conditions of any kind, except those accorded by law or acts issued by the Foreign Trade Chamber.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) argued the measure aimed to boost Brazil’s lithium market to attract investments for mineral research and production, including processing stages, component production, and batteries. The project promises to create 7,000 direct jobs in extraction and over 84,000 direct and indirect positions in production chains. This does not include royalties and investments for electric vehicle production in Brazil.

The region that would benefit most is the Jequitinhonha River Valley in northeastern Minas Gerais, home to the country’s largest known lithium reserve and accounting for about 8% of the world’s potential. The Jequitinhonha Valley is considered one of the regions with the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) in the state of Minas Gerais, reinforcing the narrative that mining projects is a solution to poverty. The narrative asserts that extractive projects help the country position itself more “competitively” in the face of the growing demand for “clean energies.”

Lithium advances on indigenous territories

The villages and families of the Aranã, Maxacali, Pankararu, and Pataxó peoples are scattered throughout the valleys of the Jequitinhonha and Mucuri rivers. There are also 95 certified quilombola communities there, making it one of the largest concentrations in Brazil. Along with economic liberalization for the installation of large lithium extraction and industrialization projects, there has been a significant increase in conflicts related to land tenure and water use in the region. This is compounded by the by the displacement of traditional families and communities for the creation of extraction areas, along with their associated logistical infrastructure.

In October 2023, during the 54th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council held in Geneva, leader Cleonice Pankararu denounced human and environmental impacts generated by new lithium mining companies installed in the region. The biologist and specialist in sustainability explained that Indigenous communities were not consulted on the lithium project nor did they give their prior, free, and informed consent. The situation is expected to worsen in the coming years.

In April 2023, Pablo Lopes Alves identified the existence of 558 lithium mining processes in the region. Currently, Bill No. 1992/2020 authorizing and establishing conditions for the creation of the Lithium Mining and Industrial Pole in the Jequitinhonha and Mucuri Valleys remains pending in the Legislative Assembly of Minas Gerais. The mega-project would encompass 14 municipalities: Araçuaí, Capelinha, Coronel Murta, Itaobim, Itinga, Malacacheta, Medina, Minas Novas, Pedra Azul, Rubelita, Salinas, Virgem da Lapa, Teófilo Otôni, and Turmalina.

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The Pankararu people have argued that the installation of the lithium mine does not respect prior, free, and informed consultation. Photo: Federal Institute

A national mining plan that does not respect prior consultation

In this context, the elaboration of the National Mining Plan 2050 began and was expected to be published and disseminated publicly in March 2024. Indigenous Peoples are included in the study Sustainable Development in the Brazilian Mineral Industry, a report prepared by a mining engineer who, in 2020, was appointed as Executive Director of Sustainability at Sigma Lithium, a mining company operating in the Jequitinhonha Valley.

If the report suggests a general orientation of the policy on indigenous peoples, pressure on local communities, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, and the National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI) is expected. While the document identifies national and international regulatory instruments that would demand otherwise, Indigenous consultation is still treated as a mere “collection of opinions,” where the position of affected communities “is not decisive.” As in the past, the interests of business groups, in collaboration with incumbent governments, seek to prevail over the Indigenous peoples’ inherent rights.

It is important to note that the implementation of new National Mining Plan 2050 began with the government of Jair Bolsonaro under the hegemony of economic and political sectors seeking greater deregulation in economic activity, as well as the increased opening of national territory and “natural resources” to investments by transnational companies. With the current government how will “progressive” sectors behave in the face of the voracity of the global capitalist economy for “critical minerals”? This is an open-ended question.

Transnational capital seeks Brazilian lithium

The National Mining Plan 2050 conducted specific studies on so-called “critical minerals,” those  minerals that are integral to the so-called ‘green energy transition.’ The study analyzed the relationship between the production chains of niobium, aluminum, copper, lithium, rare earths, nickel, cobalt, graphite, vanadium, uranium, and manganese available in Brazil, and the transition of the global capitalist energy matrix.

In the case of lithium mining, it reported that, in 2022, extraction was concentrated in five municipalities in Minas Gerais: Itinga, Araçuaí, Nazareno, São Tiago, and Divisa Alegre, located in the Jequitinhonha River Valley region. Three companies control the lithium production chain in the region: the Canadian Sigma Mineração (responsible for 57% of production), followed by the Dutch Advanced Metallurgical Group (AMG) Mineração (with 34%) and the Companhia Brasileira de Lítio (with 9%).

The lithium production chain in Brazil has experienced accelerated growth in recent years, from extraction and processing to products, use, and exports. In 2020, the six main destinations for the majority of lithium oxides and hydroxides produced in the world were South Korea, the European Union, India, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States. In addition to the installation of leading mining and processing companies, public-private agreements between business groups and the government of Minas Gerais have been driving the installation of new industries in the production chain along with higher levels of aggregated technology.

Meanwhile, the Bravo Motor Company (ArqBravo Group) announced its installation of a “gigafactory” for electric vehicles and battery packs. There are also rumors of possible investment interest from entrepreneur Elon Musk. These announcements demonstrate a growing interest in transferring industrial plants, private investments, and public-private partnerships from centralized capitalisms to peripheral regions where lithium is extracted. Thus, industrial complexes are being created in nearby regions with better logistical conditions and incentives.

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Indigenous people protest against mining in their territories in Brasilia. Photo: Cícero Pedrosa Neto/ Amazon Watch

A sacrifice that no one questions

Despite international interest, the study on “minerals for the energy transition” does not hide the fact that there are serious risks in lithium extraction and processing. It highlights recurrent environmental damage derived from open-pit mining processes, as well as some consequences on societies and human health that include:

1) Intervention in the natural landscape and impact on the collective memory of the population

2) Interference in ecosystems, either through direct habitat destruction or through mineral extraction, treatment, and transportation

3) Release of particles onto vegetation and human populations in mining areas

4) Impacts on aquifers and surface water that affects water supply for agriculture

5) Noise emissions disrupting the region’s sound matrix

6) Vibrations, heavy vehicle overload on roads, and increased emissions of polluting substances in towns

7) The cumulative effect of the above problems due to an overload of operations in a single region.

Interestingly, the study does not address energy consumption, CO2 emissions, gas treatment technologies, automation, water use, or waste generation in Brazil’s lithium production chain, citing a lack of reliable data.

Lithium extraction in the Jequitinhonha River Valley region opens discussion on the human and environmental costs involved in mineral production for the so-called “energy transition.” In Brazil, very few people question just which regions will be sacrificed to extract and industrialize the minerals needed for the transition of the global capitalist energy matrix, supposedly “cleaner.” Even fewer still, do they ask which local communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous will be destroyed to produce the paraphernalia that characterizes “modern life.”

Ricardo Verdum is a Doctor of Social Anthropology and an independent researcher. He is a member of the Commission on Indigenous Affairs and the Brazilian Association of Anthropology and the Legal Pluralism Group of Latin America. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Cover Photo: Lithium plant in Minas Gerais. Photo: AFP

Tags: Indigenous Debates

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