Uncooked supplies or sacred beings? Lithium mining brings two worldviews into stress

The pale expanse of a salt flat under a brilliant blue sky.

Bolivia has but to turn into a serious participant within the international lithium market, however that might change quickly

Positioned within the coronary heart of South America, Bolivia comprises the most important deposits of lithium on this planet – an enviable place, within the eyes of many international locations, as the electrical car market takes off.

Though electrical autos emit fewer greenhouse gases than fuel-powered autos, their batteries require extra minerals, notably lithium, which can be used to make smartphone and pc batteries.

In contrast to its neighbors Chile and Argentina, Bolivia has but to turn into a serious participant within the international lithium market. Partly, it is because its high-elevation salt flats are unsuitable for the same old technique of mining, photo voltaic evaporation.

However that appears set to alter: In January 2023, state-owned firm YLB signed an settlement with China’s CBC consortium, which incorporates the world’s largest lithium-ion battery maker, to introduce a brand new technique referred to as direct lithium mining. .

It may show to be an financial benefit. However since colonial occasions, Bolivia’s legacy of mineral abundance has additionally been certainly one of air pollution, poverty, and exploitation. Whereas some residents are assured concerning the potential advantages of the rising lithium trade, others are involved concerning the native impression of mining.

Particularly, direct lithium mining requires a considerable amount of recent water, doubtlessly endangering surrounding ecosystems, as has occurred in different components of South America’s ‘lithium triangle’.

Lithium is discovered within the underground brine under this salt pan. Photograph: Mario Orospe HernándezCC BY-NC-ND

A speedy escalation of lithium mining within the Bolivian Andes additionally represents a looming conflict between two essentially totally different visions of nature: that of recent industrial society and that of the indigenous communities who name the area house – a focus of my present analysis collaborations and thesis venture.

The Pachamama

Bolivia is house to 36 ethnic teams within the highland and lowland areas. The Aymara and Quechua peoples comprise a lot of the indigenous communities of the Andes.

For these cultures, nature shouldn’t be a way to human ends. As an alternative, it’s seen as a bunch of beings with personalities, historical past and energy past human attain. For instance, the feminine deity of fertility, to whom folks owe respect, is the Pachamama.

As a result of it helps and ensures the replica of life, the indigenous Andean folks make choices to the Pachamama in ancestral rituals generally known as “challas” which search to strengthen their connection together with her.

A handful of people bend over crop rows as they work in a hilly area.
Native meals producers in Chicani, a village on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia. Photograph: Mario Orospe HernándezCC BY-NC-ND

Equally, highland teams acknowledge mountains not as a set of inert rocks, however as ancestral guardians referred to as “Achachilas” in Aymara and “Apus” in Quechua. Every Andean group praises a close-by mountain that they imagine protects and oversees their lives.

In Uyuni, for instance, the place one of many two new lithium vegetation will likely be constructed, the indigenous communities acknowledge the presence of those sacred beings. Even right now, the devoted of the close by area of Lipez clarify the origin of the salt pan with a conventional legend: it’s the mom’s milk of their Apu, a feminine volcano referred to as Tunupa.

Nonetheless, spiritual ideas resembling “sacred” or “divine” don’t essentially seize the relationships that indigenous Andeans have lengthy established with these more-than-human beings, recognized since precolonial occasions as “huacas”.

These entities should not thought of “gods” or thought to have something to do with otherworldly beliefs. Relatively, they’re handled as an integral a part of folks’s every day earthly life.

A small pile of stones stands in front of a sand-colored hill.
A Quechua huaca, also referred to as the sacred rock shrine, on the Island of the Solar in Lake Titicaca. Mario Orospe HernándezCC BY-NC-ND

For instance, earlier than meals, the Quechuas and Aymaras throw coca leaves or pour their drinks on the bottom to share meals with these beings as an indication of gratitude and reciprocity.

Lifeless matter

In industrial societies, then again, nature is known as one thing exterior to humanity, an object that may be mastered by means of science and know-how.

The trendy financial system turns nature right into a supply of uncooked supplies: morally and spiritually inert matter that’s there to be mined and mobilized all over the world. On this framework, a mineral resembling lithium is a useful resource to be developed within the pursuit of financial features for human beings.

Certainly, the historical past of those conflicting notions is deeply intertwined with the historical past of the colonial period, when totally different cultures entered into violent battle. When the Spanish found the mining bounty of the so-called New World, resembling gold and silver, they started an intense extraction of its riches, counting on the compelled labor of the native inhabitants and imported slaves.

The idea of “uncooked supplies” will be traced again to the theological notion of “uncooked materials”. The time period initially comes from Aristotle, whose work was launched to Christianity by means of Latin translations across the twelfth century.

In the way in which Christians tailored his concept of ​​uncooked materials, the whole lot was ordered by its stage of “perfection”, starting from the bottom stage – the uncooked materials, probably the most fundamental “stuff” on this planet – to rocks, vegetation, animals, people, angels and, lastly, God.

A black and white engraving shows people working in a mine with a ladder leading up to the entrance.
A silver mine in Potosi, New Spain – now Bolivia – depicted by Theodor de Bry round 1590. ullstein picture/ullstein picture by way of Getty Photographs

The Catholic Church and the Spanish Empire later used this medieval conception of matter as one thing passive, with out spirit, to justify useful resource extraction through the colonial interval. The nearer issues have been to uncooked materials, their argument supposed, the extra they wanted a human fingerprint and an exterior function to make them helpful.

This notion was additionally utilized by Christian colonizers who have been intent on destroying traditions they thought of idolatrous. Of their eyes, reverence for a mountain or the earth itself was to worship a mere “factor,” a false god.

The church and the empire believed it was crucial to desacralize these more-than-human beings and deal with them as mere assets.

This flattened view of nature served as the idea for the fashionable financial idea of uncooked supplies, launched within the 18th century with the emergence of economics as a social science.

The highway forward

The lithium initiatives in Bolivia symbolize a brand new potential conflict of worldviews. Nonetheless, mining initiatives have suffered main setbacks in recent times, together with social protests, the 2019 political disaster and an absence of the mandatory know-how.

The Chinese language settlement represents a brand new milestone, however its outcomes are nonetheless unsure: for the financial system, for native communities and for the Earth.

As we speak, electrical autos are broadly seen as a part of the answer to the local weather disaster. Nonetheless, they’ll want a mining surge to fulfill their battery wants. If societies really desire a greener future, technological adjustments resembling electrical autos will likely be solely a part of the reply, together with different adjustments resembling extra sustainable city planning and improved public transport.

However as well as, maybe different cultures may study from Andean relationships with nature as beings greater than people: an inspiration to rethink growth and remodel our lifestyle into one thing much less harmful.The conversation

Mario Orospe Hernández, PhD Candidate in Non secular Research, Arizona State College

This text is republished by The dialog licensed beneath Inventive Commons. Learn the unique article.

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