Lights and shadows of the new white gold
In his new photographic project, Argentine Sebastián López Brach travels across the altiplano to examine the territorial conflicts and ecological devastation behind a promise: the energy transition fueled by lithium exploitation.
By Alonso Almenara
In its pure form, lithium is a soft, silver-white, snow-like metal: aesthetically, it is the exact opposite of oil, that black gold on which the functioning of the global economy still depends, but which seems destined to be replaced by other energy sources, given its role in the current climate crisis. Lithium-ion batteries are set to play a leading role in this transition: they power electric vehicles, which, according to recent estimates, could account for up to 60% of new car sales by 2030. For example, The Tesla Model S battery uses about 12 kg of lithium. The growth in the use of this metal has caused the price of a ton of lithium to soar from $450 in 2003 to $65,000 in 2022.
That puts Latin America in the spotlight: the Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia, the Atacama salt flat in Chile, and the Hombre Muerto salt flat in Argentina form the so-called “lithium triangle,” where 85% of the world’s lithium reserves are concentrated. In the last three decades, North American, European, and Asian mining companies have set up in the region to excavate the abundant deposits of the new “white gold”: a source of energy whose advocates describe as clean and with the potential to rid the planet of the worst effects of global warming, associated with the burning of fossil fuels.
Argentine photographer Sebastián López Brach is part of a growing critical sector that seeks to expose the problems with this idealized vision of lithium. The most obvious is that its exploitation interferes with one of the driest ecosystems in the world. There are areas of the Andean altiplano where it does not rain for years and whose inhabitants depend on a scarce network of rivers and salty lakes fed by subway water deposits accumulated over millennia. Since the 1990s, mining projects in northern Chile have pumped water from the salt lakes to access the lithium hidden beneath. Communities in these areas claim that mining has depleted groundwater levels, threatening the future of indigenous peoples.
Some experts agree: according to a Amigos de la Tierra report, lithium mining inevitably damages the soil and causes air pollution. As demand increases, the impacts of mining “increasingly affect the communities where this harmful extraction takes place, jeopardizing their access to water,” the report says. Indeed, lithium production through evaporation ponds uses excessive water: approximately 2.2 million liters are needed to produce one ton of lithium.
The ecological crisis in the Chilean altiplano is now being repeated in Argentina: a country that possesses 21% of the world’s lithium reserves and which, with twelve extractive projects underway, aims to become the world’s leading exporter of this metal. As López Brach notes, it is a situation that will affect some 50,000 people living in the Argentine puna, who are about to witness their resources being taken away and their lands razed in the name of a “green revolution.”
López Brach is 33 years old. He was born in the city of Rosario, located on the western bank of the Paraná River, one of the world’s longest and most significant rivers. “I’ve always been very reserved; I don’t know if shy is the word,” he comments. “I like to sail alone, to cross the Paraná alone. And so I became interested in observing how light settles on nature or animals. That was my entry into the world of photography.”
This author’s interest in documenting the relationship between humans and nature is evident in all his work. For him, resolving a photographic project means, in the first instance, “getting to know the territory in conflict and the people, and then documenting. It is more an anthropologist’s work than a photographer’s. This methodology is applied in Litio, el Nuevo Oro Blanco (lithium, the new white gold). This work examines the situation of the Kachi mining project in the Argentine province of Catamarca.
“In Argentina, the biggest mining companies are foreign, and their actions are always the same: they come to these lands to extract lithium to take it out of the country, and the first thing they do is to clear the land of the people who live there. For that, they sell them the famous story that they bring work and progress, but without talking about the future.”
How was Litio, el Nuevo Oro Blanco project born?
I have had the idea for some time because Argentina is one of the three countries that make up the “lithium triangle.” Additionally, I recently traveled to Spain and witnessed the progress of the energy transition: a transition much celebrated in Europe, but few wonder where this new energy comes from. The scenario is one of neo-colonialism typical of this era, and that was what disturbed me most. Finally, in April last year, Time magazine gave me an assignment on this subject, and that is when I traveled to Atacama and then to Catamarca.
You say that this is a neo-colonial situation; what do you mean?
In Argentina, the biggest mining companies are foreign, and their actions are always the same: they come to these lands to extract lithium to take it out of the country, and the first thing they do is clear the land of the people who live there. For that, they sell them the famous story that they bring work and progress, but without talking about the future. What happens to the water, what happens to the land, what happens to the animals that these people feed on?
It is something that reminds me of the period of the Conquest, when the Europeans, in the name of civilization, came to occupy these lands and plunder them. In Catamarca, where I have been working, the politicians arrive, the mayor arrives, the deputies arrive from each region, and they promise the population new schools and squares.
Of course, many are satisfied with that, which is very little compared to lithium’s worldwide profits. And natural resources are devastated.
And yet we are presented with the idea that lithium is a “clean” energy.
In the first world, there is a lot of talk about the progress brought by this energy transition in which we stop using oil as a fundamental basis for mobility and start using new “green” energies that are less harmful to the environment. Behind this, there is a completely different scenario: there is the contamination of the rivers where the lithium deposits are located, there is the displacement of communities, and there is a loss of biodiversity. The impotence one feels when talking about lying progress moved me most to address this issue.
Recently Boric, the president of Chile, announced that he would nationalize lithium. What do you think about this?
Wanting to take advantage of lithium makes sense politically because the largest lithium deposits on the planet are concentrated in this region. But at what cost, I wonder. We are selling our country for a few dollars, and in exchange, we are leaving a devastated land.
Your work focuses on the relationship between humans and nature. What attracted you to this theme as a photographer?
I was born in a region where nature abounds: the Paraná River that crosses my city is one of the most extensive on the planet and brings with its incredible biodiversity. This personal approach led me to want to work on the importance of ecosystems and our relationship with them. I have worked for eight years in a reserve in our city, where we rescue and rehabilitate native fauna that humans have mistreated. Then we reinsert the animals into the wetland, which is the ecosystem we inhabit. That was my first strong approach to environmental issues and territories in conflict.
How important is the interaction with the community in your work process?
The most important thing for me is always the cultural aspect of the territory: listening to the testimonies of the people who live in these areas to better understand the story’s background. It helps me to listen to all the actors in conflict: for this work, I interviewed one of the most influential directors of one of the mining companies involved. I understand that I have to be impartial. But gathering all this information and analyzing what is at stake only makes me more inclined, personally, towards what I believe is a necessary struggle.
This work is one of the inspirations for E-CO/23], the new edition of our meeting of photographic collectives, which this year will have as its thematic axes: Ecologies, Territories, and Communities.
Through this call, we are interested in gathering stories of sustainable development, community movements, and ways of inhabiting the land in the community to achieve new narratives built from the plurality of collective creation.
Each selected project will receive support of 5,000 euros for its production. The tasks can be presented by existing collectives or by groups of people working in collaboration for this project in an interdisciplinary way.
The selected groups will participate in a collective process of production and reflection that will be accompanied by pedagogical support with specialists in the themes.
Once the production stage is completed, the project results will be presented in one or more exhibitions that may rotate and on the digital platforms of Fundación VIST, the AECID, and the participating Spanish Cultural Centers or the institutions they designate. The aim is to consolidate networks for creating and circulating visual narratives in Ibero-America.