Trouble in the Triangle

Lithium mining is driving social unrest in the Argentine province of Jujuy.

IT’S A SATURDAY afternoon in October, and Abel Orlando Puca is on his way to a monthly community meeting of residents in San Miguel de los Colorados, a hamlet of mud-brick houses with grass roofs in the Argentine province of Jujuy. Seventy families live here, spread across a high, mountainous plateau called the Puna, in the northern corner of the country. A fierce wind blows clouds of dust over the desolate plain, where it has not rained in eight months. The soil is bone dry and covered with low shrubs and curled tufts of grass. In the distance, a series of salt lakes sparkles white.

“Look, those are my cows,” says Orlando Puca, 39. His modest herd includes about 40 cows and as many sheep, plus some llamas and goats. He stops. A cow walks by, a bloody umbilical cord dragging behind her. A still-wet calf, curled in a heap, looks up from behind a bush. “Born less than half an hour ago,” he says. He has lived in the highlands all his life and has a family of nine children. Their livelihood depends on their animals and on his work in the community’s salt cooperative, the traditional sources of income of the Kolla communities that have inhabited the Puna since pre-Columbian times. His life here represents an important part of the region’s history.

Most of the Indigenous communities of the Puna do not want lithium mining in their ancestral territory.

About 10 miles away, Nelda Lamas, 34, leads a group of Argentinians dressed in shorts and T-shirts around the salt flats of Salinas Grandes. The flats are the Puna’s main tourist destination, and the budding tourism industry there offers a glimpse of a possible future for the region. “As you can see, everything here is made of salt,” she explains, as the tourists gather around a rectangular pool cut into the salt flat. “Salt is a renewable resource. Thanks to the brine in the ground, the salt layer grows back every year. But mining companies want to pump that brine up from the ground for lithium extraction.” Such a process requires enormous amounts of freshwater, she says. “That’s why we don’t want lithium extraction in our territory.”

Lithium mining represents yet another potential future here. The salt flats of Jujuy are part of the “lithium triangle,” a huge section of the Andes in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina that holds an estimated 50 million of the world’s 90 million tons of lithium. Jujuy itself has about 40 mining projects in either study or exploration phases. Meanwhile, two mining companies have already begun extracting lithium, one beginning in 2015 and the other just last year, and now produce 8 percent of the world’s lithium supply.

San Miguel de los Colorados is part of Cuenca de Salinas Grandes y Laguna de Guayatayoc, a watershed covering more than 17,000 square kilometers. The 33 Indigenous communities living here have been fighting lithium mining since 2010, when exploratory activities first began to pick up in Argentina. They have filed numerous lawsuits against the provincial government for not consulting them properly about the projects and failing to study the accumulated environmental impact of dozens of planned lithium operations in the region. In 2019, they protested a lithium mining operation about to open on the salt flats until the company packed up and left.

tourists at Argentina's salt flats

The Salinas Grandes are the main tourist destination in the Puna, Jujuy’s mountainous plateau. The budding tourism industry there offers a glimpse of a possible future for the region.

salt ponds in Argentina

For generations, Indigenous communities in the Puna have made a living by harvesting salt from the region’s salt flats. Vast quantities of lithium lie beneath these flats.

farmer in Argentina in lithium triangle

Orlando Puca has lived all his life in the highlands. His family’s livelihood depends on their animals and his work in the community’s salt cooperative.

Most of the Indigenous communities of the Puna do not want lithium mining in their ancestral territory. Extracting lithium from beneath the salt flats requires moving large amounts of brine, about two million liters per ton of lithium, along with freshwater that is pumped to the surface. As that water evaporates from surface ponds, a lithium-rich brine is left behind. The Puna highlands receive a maximum of 300 millimeters of rain per year, making water a highly scarce resource. People fear that lithium mining will dry up the water supply, destroy a fragile ecosystem, and end their way of life.

“The mining companies say that the salt flats are not being used and that no one lives here,” says Lamas, who is a member of the Santuario de Tres Pozos community. A wide-brimmed sun hat hides her face. “But that’s a lie.”

THE COMMUNITIES OF the Puna have found themselves caught amid the green energy revolution. As the world tries to transition away from fossil fuels, demand for lithium — used for electric car batteries and renewable energy storage — has skyrocketed. That demand is projected to keep growing, creating huge potential profits for mining companies, as well as for countries, like Argentina, sitting on large reserves. In Jujuy, these forces have incentivized local government officials to pave the way for mining, at the expense of Indigenous communities.

Most notably, in June 2023, news circulated that a new provincial constitution had been hastily drawn up behind closed doors, an effort led by Jujuy Gov. Gerardo Morales. Several reforms in the constitution were meant to facilitate the expansion of the lithium industry. For example, the new constitution aimed to deprive the Indigenous population of their right to communal land by declaring their territory “public land destined for production,” and stated that “all water sources of the provincial territory” were the property of the province. Moreover, it stifled opposition, criminalizing social protest that “blocks passage” of roads or the free movement of people.

“The reform has wiped the Indigenous peoples from the map.”

The constitutional reform set off alarms in Indigenous communities, which comprise about 60 percent of the province’s population. People from across the region marched on the provincial capital, San Salvador de Jujuy, to protest the changes. On June 16, before they arrived, the Constituent Assembly approved the new constitution, sending it to the provincial parliament for a final vote. The same day, the police violently repressed a protest in Abra Pampa, a village on the Puna, some 1,700 kilometers outside the capital. The next day, a violent confrontation broke out between several hundred demonstrators and the police on the provincial road near Purmamarca, a tourist village set against the backdrop of a beautiful mountain range. The police officers, unidentifiable in black motorcycle helmets, shot demonstrators with rubber bullets. “They shot at faces, at eyes, and threw tear gas bombs at the crowd,” a resident of San Miguel de los Colorados told me, requesting anonymity. Local media later reported that several teenagers had lost an eye in the clash.

Argentines had not experienced this level of state violence since the end of the military dictatorship in 1983, many residents told me. Four days later, on June 20, 2023, the provincial parliament approved the controversial document by a large majority, making the reform official. Meanwhile, the police opened fire with rubber bullets once again, this time on the demonstrators who had gathered en masse in front of the parliament building in San Salvador de Jujuy. “Inside people were applauding, while shots were fired outside,” said Ayde Gutierrez, 57, from the village of Humahuaca. “And who gave the order for that? We still don’t know.”

ALL OF THIS helps explain why Orlando Puca left his cows and traveled to a community meeting in San Miguel de los Colorados. The wind rattled the corrugated iron roof, and the room smelled of coca leaves, a favorite chew of those in attendance. Orlando Puca and about 50 others stayed for a 10-hour-long meeting, as their community leaders went point by point through a monthly agenda. The most important item on the agenda was continued protest against the reform. The communities were not going to back down.

community organizing against mining in lithium triangle

Indigenous communities in Cuenca de Salinas Grandes y Laguna de Guayatayoc have been fighting lithium mining proposals since 2010, when exploratory activities began to pick up there.

community meeting in lithium triangle

Recently they have been discussing strategy amid a government crackdown on protest in the region.

Like most residents of his community, Orlando Puca does not own the land he lives on. Since 1994, the federal constitution has stated that Indigenous communities like San Miguel de los Colorados have a constitutional right to their ancestral land. Yet, the province has for 30 years denied them the communal land title that they are entitled to. Because the controversial constitutional reform simply declares that their land, which is still owned by the state, is to be “destined for production,” without any mention of the Indigenous peoples who live there, they fear being displaced by the mining companies.

“The reform has wiped the Indigenous peoples from the map,” says environmental lawyer Alicia Chalabe, who has represented the 33 communities of Cuenca de Salinas Grandes y Laguna de Guayatayoc since 2010. Shortly after the reform was approved, Chalabe and the local NGO Foundation for the Environment and Natural Resources went to provincial court to fight the reform.

Since the outbreak of protests in mid-June, community leaders have continued demonstrating both locally and in the federal capital, Buenos Aires. At the end of July, they organized a march to the capital to draw national attention to the undemocratic reform and state repression in Jujuy, setting up camp in front of the Supreme Court. There, supported by various human rights organizations, they presented a legal action to the Supreme Court to declare the unconstitutionality of the provincial reform. They also demonstrated daily in front of the Congress building, until they were forced to leave shortly after the newly elected far-right president Javier Milei took office, on Dec. 10.

In Jujuy, residents have been holding a permanencia pacifica, or “peaceful presence,” along the province’s main roads. That includes at the salt flats of Salinas Grandes, which lie along the highway from Purmamarca to Chile. Every day, from 9 am to 6 pm, about six residents install themselves at the intersection a few kilometers before the salt flats. Patiently waving the multicolored Indigenous wiphala flags, they urge every motorist, tourist bus, and truck to stop so they can hand over flyers explaining why they are there. “Sometimes they call us lazy,“ says an older woman wrapped in fleece blankets, shrugging as she squints against the relentless sun at this 3,500-meter altitude. “But they just don’t understand our situation.”

It’s a difficult battle. A week after the protesters left Buenos Aires in December, the federal Supreme Court said it would not intervene in the court case challenging the unconstitutionality of the reform, sending the case back to the province. There, the local court has so far done nothing with the lawsuit. Meanwhile, the Lithos mining company, a subsidiary of the Pan American Energy Group, announced it would start operating soon in the Salinas Grandes area. Though the communities intend to stop the company from entering their territory once again, many residents told me they fear that they won’t be able to do so anymore.

Still, they refuse to give up. “The reform deprives us of our right to water and gives the green light to looting natural resources,” says Lamas, who is now not only a tour guide but a protester as well. She will protest until the reform is reversed, she says. “We are entitled to this land, but they deny us that right because there is a lot of wealth in the ground here. This reform will drive us from our land. And where should we go then?”

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