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Confronting the Lithium Rush: Salinas Grandes in Danger in Salta and Jujuy, Argentina

By Clemente Flores (Kolla)
Photos by Joaquin Zaldivar and Soledad Sede

I am the President of the El Angosto Indigenous community of the Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc basin in the provinces of Salta and Jujuy, Argentina. Salinas Grandes is located at 3200 meters above sea level, at the foot of the Nevado de Chañi, Argentina. We are approximately 7,000 inhabitants of 33 communities scattered over an area of 150 kilometers, with numerous roads connecting us. We do not differentiate between each group, we identify ourselves as part of the basin, and we have a shared culture and traditions through common traits and symbols such as the Pachamama or the carnival that is transmitted from generation to generation. 

Although the basin is distributed between Salta and Jujuy, two provinces in the northwest of Argentina, there are no divisions between Salteños and Jujeños. There are families where the mother lives in Salta, and her children, a few meters away, live in Jujuy; daily life takes place on that invisible line that knows no borders. Indigenous communities pre-exist ethnically and culturally to the Argentine State and enjoy a series of rights, such as the right to decide on the priorities of our development, participation in the formulation of plans, policies, or programs that may affect us, and Free, Prior and Informed Consent, guaranteed in the Constitution of the Argentine Nation and the International Covenants to which this country has adhered.


Shepherdess keeping her llamas in the corral.

Most of the communities live from pastoral activities, raising sheep and llamas, complementing our economies with smaller-scale agricultural production. Salt is a basic element, because it is the product that allows us to obtain other resources. The Salt Flats have provided us with sustenance for many generations, before through barter and exchange trips and today as day laborers in the salt cooperatives or as vendors in the regional markets. The Salt Flats are part of our history and identity.

Shepherd feeding a baby llama with a bottle because her mother was attacked by a puma.

Shepherdess weaving handicrafts with the wool of the llamas that she takes care of, shears, spins, dyes, weaves and finally sells to tourists.

We raise llamas to get the meat and do handicrafts. Llamas are part of our family and we keep small herds so that in the winter they do not suffer from lack of food. We shear them, spin the wool, weave handicrafts, and subsist on them. At the same time the way this is done is a way of transmitting culture, the natural herbal dyes we use to obtain colors and designs are ancestral knowledge transmitted many generations ago between men and women.

There is also an affectionate and family relationship with the whole environment. By the signs that wild animals, such as the puma or the fox, give us, we know if the year will be dry or rainy. For their part, the plants with their flowers warn us about the weather. The weather itself is family, and each natural phenomenon has its own way. That is why we ask for respect for this spiritual relationship with the natural environment.

In order to defend ourselves against what the mass media was reporting as the “white gold of the puna,” the “lithium triangle,” and the battery production rush, we started organizing ourselves in 2010. The communities of the basin were unaware of everything that had to do with the exploration and exploitation of this precious mineral. We learned about what it was and what they were going to produce with it, and we organized ourselves to demand information about what they wanted to do in the territory. Our concern was always the amount of water that was going to be consumed in this extractive activity. What is already happening and what wants to happen in the future is that we are going to run out of water: our main interest is water. 

We understood that to mine lithium it is necessary to pump millions of liters of water that make up the subsoil of the salt mine. That water has been there for millions of years and is one more link in the composition of our fragile ecosystem, no one assures us that if they remove that water, our way of life will not be affected. All the advances we see are trial and error. In Catamarca, the Livent Mining Company that has been exploiting lithium since 1997 has been denounced for drying up a river, and for that reason, the Supreme Court of that province prohibited the granting of new permits in the Salar del Hombre Muerto until a study of the accumulated environmental impact of all the projects and works that have been carried out there is done. We do not want to be the guinea pig of the energy transition. If they take away our water, our way of life will end and with it, our culture.

Clemente Flores on an apacheta (a mound of stones placed in a conical shape one on top of the other as an offering to a deity.) with Apu Chani (sacred mountains) in the background.

The ecosystem of the Puna is very precarious. We live in balance and use the resources that nature gives us to the maximum. We have small productions of pea and potato crops, raising llamas and goats on a small scale; and in all these activities, water consumption is essential. That is why since 2010, we began to gather people and institutions that could help us (local, provincial, and international actors) and to seek legal advice. Pursuing the objective of making a collective demand to the State to guarantee our rights, we strengthened the message that the watershed belongs to the communities, and we warned about the fragile future of our culture that seeks to take care of the Earth, not to destroy it. It is ancestral knowledge that we have to protect it as a source of life, and we must be responsible.

We filed a lawsuit before the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation requesting that the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the local communities be guaranteed. We began to meet systematically to plan and raise awareness about this emerging problem that could affect everyone's lives. We also met so that the State would understand that before any activity it wanted to carry out in the basin, it should consult and carry out an adequate and participatory procedure.

It was a process of organization that required the commitment of the communities to meet every month and their willingness to participate in the meetings. Once the lawsuit was filed, we generated an internal regulation. Together with the advisors, we identified the first areas of work: water, interested companies, and the Free, Prior and Informed Consent procedure. The monthly meetings are attended by between 30 and 60 people. Sometimes, the weather factor, the lack of transportation, and roads affect the routes we must travel to be present, making it very difficult for all the representatives to participate.

Another communication difficulty is the lack of internet access. We have mobile devices, but no signal, and although we have had electricity service for a few years, it is not very good, and many times we are left without electricity. This has a direct impact on the quality of our work because we cannot, for example, reschedule meetings. Dates are unchangeable, so commitment and compliance become fundamental. Respect for our word is our main organizational tool.

Roadblock and mobilization in Salinas Grandes against the exclusion of Indigenous Peoples from the provincial constitutional reform of 2023.

Incompatibilities of Lithium Exploitation with Local Production

It is impossible to think of the possibility of the coexistence of the two processes: the extractive activity of lithium exploitation and the development of the communities of the basin with their ancestral values and small-scale production methods. In the Puna, it rains only 100 millimeters per year. This means that the water consumed for lithium extraction is not available, except in springs and fossil water. If this activity proceeds, wells will have to be drilled dozens of meters deep, the springs will dry up because they are in an endorheic basin and will leave the communities without water. 

So far, we are waiting for the State to consult the communities and to know the possible alternatives because they have never shown us the lithium exploitation plan, nor have they involved us in the generation of public policies aimed at respecting and involving the indigenous peoples. Ninety kilometers from our basin, in the area of the Cauchari salt flat, they are exploring lithium, and we perceive what is happening: large drillings, dry springs, and producers who are forced to leave with their llamas. And very few talk about these damages.

We are not against mining, progress, or the generation of employment, but we want our voices to be respected, involved and consulted. In 2009 the State announced that it was going to exploit the Pirquitas mine, which would have a production for thirty years, but today it is closed. What happened to the local populations and the environment? What kind of development are we talking about? If the energy transition is intended to improve the world, why do they put our lives at risk? 

We want to be part of the world they are trying to save, we also have the right to be included in the future. We can contribute so that the extraction of energy transition minerals does not mean sacrificing our culture. If they kill the Pachamama, they kill our People. 

Organized communities on their way to see the situation in which the mining companies are leaving the salt flats with their excavations and intrusions without permission.

Progress and Challenges

One of the strategies we used to address this situation was to prepare a document on our right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent, which the State must guarantee. There, we explained to the State what should be the appropriate consultation procedure for our culture. That is why we consider that one of the most important results of this whole process was this document, which we called “Kachi Yupi or Salt Footprints,” in which there was participation, reflection, and commitment from all the communities, despite the fact that not everyone agreed on certain points. 

An Indigenous leader handing out and teaching the Kachi Yupi (Basin Communities Consultation Protocol).

With the profits paid for the making of the film "In the Name of lithium," Flores printed and distributed 1000 Kachi Yupi in the 33 communities of the Salinas so that each of the families of the members of the basin have at least one to read.

Everyone had the opportunity to add contributions and content that they considered significant. Today, we are ensuring that the State complies with this binding document. If it is not complied with, then our rights are violated. Once formalized, this proposal will work for all those mining exploration projects in the short, medium, and long term because, ultimately, what keeps us moving is to be able to protect this piece of living nature, our life system. 

For us, the salt mine is not an economic resource but a living being. Salt has a breeding cycle. In the months of October and November of each year, the sowing is done by building pools; from December until February is the rainy period in which the salt is raised, then comes the harvest from March until May, and from this month, the salt is fractioned and marketed. In August, we ask for a good year for salt, and in our territories, we make offerings to the Pachamama, always in the same place, offering coca leaves, food, drinks, and sahumada with coba. In this way, we renew the salt cycle. The rational management of the Salt Flats has been an ancestral conception of the communities that live there. When we walk through the salt flats, from time to time, we find that water springs up in springs of water. These springs are for us authorities that must be respected, they are sacred because they are the source of life. To touch them, we must first “challar” them, we must ask their permission. 

Festivital of the Church of Casabindo, as part of the religious syncretism the ancestral beliefs are mixed with those imposed by the Catholic Church forming an annual calendar of diverse activities of adoration, processions, and celebrations of the Catholic saints and local deities.

There are many more deities than those worshipped by urban and rural believers. Some inhabit mountains, plains, rivers, forests, jungles, swamps, seas and salt flats. They have lived in natural and wild environments since the earliest days of human settlement, accompanying the ancients, and exist from the moment they are named and by whoever mentions or believes in them. These beliefs also function as a normative framework that clarifies what is right and what is wrong. They have a moralizing intention and are anchored to something that exists (be it the place, the protagonist, the geography, or another feature of the story). They always leave a pedagogical message and warn about negative situations or behaviors that are undesirable for the well-being of a community. However, these spiritual beings are more vulnerable than others who have temples to protect their memory and attract their believers. The existence of these entities depends exclusively on the conservation of the wild landscapes that contain them. That is why we say: “We do not eat batteries; if they take the water, our life is gone.”


Special thank you to Soledad Sede for helping to edit the article.


Top photo: Pools where Indigenous communities cultivate salt using ancestral methods.