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Jujuy: An Indigenous and Working-Class Rebellion in the Lithium Triangle

Workers and indigenous people in Jujuy, Argentina are facing off against antidemocratic reforms enacted by the provincial government and the international lithium mining corporations behind it.

Robert Belano

June 26, 2023
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A pitched battle is taking place in Argentina’s lithium-rich north that has global implications with the worldwide expansion of “green capitalism.” On one side are Indigenous people, teachers, young people, environmental activists, and precarious workers. On the other, the multinational lithium interests and their Argentinian representatives in government.

For nearly a month, the northern province of Jujuy has gripped the attention of the nation, with daily demonstrations for salary raises and in rejection of an authoritarian constitutional “reform” imposed by the province’s governor, Gerardo Morales. To date, activists are maintaining over a dozen road blocks throughout the region.

Police have cracked down heavily on demonstrators, leaving at least 170 people injured, including a 17-year-old boy who lost his eye after police shot him in the face with a rubber bullet. Authorities have also carried out widespread arrests with 50 or more demonstrators facing charges. Journalists and human rights organizations have denounced the presence of police infiltrators in protests, illegal raids on homes, the indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets, among other abuses.

A significant number of those detained during protests have been indigenous people, women, and even children. Last week, viral images showed the violent arrest of provincial legislator Natalia Morales, whom police had dragged through the street for over 50 meters. It is likely Morales was targeted for her role as a leader in the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS), a Trotskyist party and sister organization of Left Voice. Journalist Lucho Aguilar of La Izquierda Diario, the press outlet of the PTS, was also arrested the same day while covering the protests. The United Nations and Amnesty International have denounced the police violence and mass arrests in Jujuy, while internationally recognized climate activist Greta Thunberg voiced her solidarity with the movement taking place in the streets. 

At the center of these clashes is a fight against the ongoing exploitation of lithium resources by foreign multinationals. While mining companies are expanding extractive activity and generating record profits in provinces like Jujuy, Salta, and Catamarca, the people of Argentina’s north experience very few of the benefits from lithium production. Average salaries in Jujuy are around 40 percent lower than in the capital city of Buenos Aires and informal work, offering virtually no benefits or job protections, predominates among the working class. The youth face particularly dire prospects: as many as nine out of 10 young people in the province work in precarious jobs. Meanwhile the region’s poor and Indigenous people suffer the greatest burden from the contamination and water shortages that result from lithium extraction. 

The rebellion questions a system in which multinational corporations and their local partners plunder the natural resources that rightfully belong to the people of the Global South, while leaving behind only poverty and ecological degradation. Increasingly, working class people and members of marginalized communities are determining that it is they who should control their region’s mineral resources, it is they who should determine where and how extraction should take place, and it is they who should benefit from the proceeds. 

Teachers’ and Indigenous Struggles Converge

The demonstrations underway first broke out last month with strikes by teachers for salary increases. Teachers’ salaries in Jujuy are among the lowest in the country; here a teacher’s starting salary may be as low as 35,000 pesos (around $140 USD) monthly, while the cost of living stands at over 200,000 pesos per month (close to $800 USD). With runaway inflation in the country — Argentina experienced more than 100 percent inflation over the past year — teachers are increasingly pushed into conditions of poverty. 

The teachers’ strikes coincided with an attempt by the government of Gerardo Morales to reform the province’s constitution. Soon, teachers were joined in the streets by members of Indigenous communities, young people, workers, and members of left-wing parties. Among the changes that generated the most popular outrage were new prohibitions on street demonstrations and measures to dispossess Indigenous people and facilitate expanding mining activities on Indigenous lands. The purpose of Morales’s so-called reforms is clear to all of Jujuy’s people: to gain access to new lithium resources for multinational businesses and to curtail protests against mining operations or mining-friendly policies. 

Conscious of the unpopularity of these reforms among Jujuy’s people, Morales fast-tracked the reforms through the provincial legislature without any meaningful time for debate and without consulting the Indigenous communities who would be most affected. In fact, the final text of the reform was only made available on the day of the vote. 

While President Alberto Fernandez and Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner denounced the brutality of Morales’s police forces in Jujuy, members of their party endorsed the governor’s reform and were crucial to its passage in the legislature. Meanwhile, Peronist leaders in other provinces, like Gustavo Saenz, Governor of the Salta province and close ally of the President, have attempted similar curtailments of the right to protest and have directed equally repressive responses to demonstrations. 

The only force in the legislature to consistently denounce the authoritarian constitutional reform has been the Workers’ Left Front (FIT-U according to its initials in Spanish), a coalition of four Trotskyist parties, including the PTS. Rather than legitimizing the process, the four members of the FIT-U elected to the constituent assembly announced a boycott of the reform process from the floor and walked out of the proceedings. Members of the PTS and the FIT-U do not restrict their fight to the electoral arena; since the strikes and demonstrations have begun, they have been shoulder-to-shoulder with indigenous people, teachers and others in the streets to demand salary raises and the repeal of the reforms. Further, PTS/FIT-U is calling on unions to organize a general strike until the demands of the movement are won.

With the outbreak of protests, Morales’s government has been forced to retreat, and has withdrawn several of its planned reforms, such as the proposed end to midterm elections. It has kept in place the most hated measure, however: heavy penalties for activists who organize cortes de ruta (or roadblocks) during political demonstrations. These roadblocks have been the historical method of struggle of Argentina’s working class and oppressed communities, particularly in the poorest regions of the country, like Jujuy. Indeed, it is virtually the only method available to them to defend against the theft of their lands, the pollution of their water resources, and the crushing poverty imposed upon them. And in a country in which violence against women is widespread — a woman is murdered every 36 hours in Argentina — road blocks have also become a necessary method of struggle for justice within the feminist movement. 

The White Gold Rush

Argentina’s north is part of South America’s so-called Lithium Triangle, a 7,000 square foot region that also includes sections of Chile and Bolivia and holds an estimated three-quarters of all the world’s lithium resources. The country now ranks fourth in lithium exports worldwide, behind Australia, Chile, and China. And two of Argentina’s three operational lithium mines are located in Jujuy. Among the multinationals who are now profiting from the region’s reserves are the U.S. firm Livent Corp, the Australian firm Allkem, Lithium Americas Corp of Canada, and Ganfeng Lithium of China.

The lithium industry is among the fastest growing in the world, in large part because of the need for lithium in rechargeable batteries, such as those used by electric vehicles (EVs). With EV production reaching new records each year, the worldwide demand for lithium is soaring. For this reason it has often been dubbed “white gold.” In 2022, Argentina exported nearly $700 million in lithium, which represented a more than 200 percent increase over the previous year. The primary destinations were China, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and the European Union. Six additional sites for lithium mining in the north of Argentina are set to open in the coming years.

The United States, not to be left behind in the race for Argentina’s lithium, is also attempting to deepen its influence in the region, even signaling its willingness to leverage its military resources to secure its interests. U.S. General Laura Richardson, the head of U.S. Army’s Southern Command, met with Argentina’s Vice President Cristina Kirchner and Defense Minister Jorge Taiana in 2022 to discuss joint military training in the country. And she recently described the need to challenge the “aggressiveness or the influence and coercion” of China in the Lithium Triangle and the importance of “boxing out” U.S. competitors from the region. 

Jujuy’s poor and indigenous residents understand well that while lithium companies have made enormous profits in recent years, it has been foreign capital and a small Argentinian elite that have benefitted from lithium extraction. Meanwhile the majority of the province’s people suffer chronic poverty, precarity, and ever-diminishing fresh water access. Industries like electric vehicles, which make use of lithium ion batteries, are often presented as an ecologically responsible alternative. Yet the record of lithium mining corporations in regions like Jujuy shows plainly the devastating ecological impact of the industry. 

To begin with, the extraction of lithium from the ground requires enormous quantities of water. According to one study, producing one ton of lithium (a value of around $19,000) means the use of one million liters of water. In arid regions like Jujuy — some parts of the province experience just 100 millimeters of rainfall annually — this intense use of fresh water is felt heavily by local communities and small-scale agricultural producers. 

A Growing Class Consciousness

The staggering profits of industries like lithium mining and agribusiness, alongside ecological degradation and an ever-growing divide between rich and poor, have profoundly shaped the class consciousness of Jujuy’s working class and oppressed communities. This was demonstrated by the massive support earned by the FIT-U in recent elections. The FIT-U won 25 percent of the vote in Jujuy in nationwide midterm elections last year, resulting in its first-ever left-wing congressmember, Alejandro Vilca. Vilca is himself of Indigenous heritage, a long-time sanitation worker, and a militant within the PTS. This year, Vilca stood for governor in provincial elections and achieved the best result for a left-wing gubernatorial candidate anywhere in the country in three decades. The advance of the left is due in large part to the anti-capitalist program it put forward to challenge the interests of the big mining and agricultural companies and return the wealth of the province to its people. This program included, above all, the statization — or state takeover — under worker and consumer control of the province’s lithium resources.

The struggle by indigenous people, teachers, and poor people in Jujuy requires the broadest international solidarity, particularly as the lithium extracted from their lands is by and large destined for the countries of the Global North, and the profits from its sale flow to the foreign multinational corporations. This solidarity must include a rejection of the constitutional reform and the imperialist plunder of local resources and support for the withdrawal of charges against demonstrators, salaries equal to the cost of living, and the statization of lithium resources under worker and consumer control. Finally, activists and workers in the U.S. and in the North must demand the cancellation of all foreign debt for the countries of the South, including Argentina, since this debt is ultimately paid through contaminative extractivist projects like lithium mining.

We must fight for an immediate worldwide transition to renewable energy, but the development of renewable infrastructure must not take place at the cost of the dispossession of indigenous people and the contamination of their land and water. The experience in Jujuy shows the promise of “green capitalism” to be a cruel farce. Indeed, overcoming the climate and ecological crises means directly challenging the capitalist system responsible for them. 

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Robert Belano

Robert Belano is a writer and editor for Left Voice. He lives in the Washington, DC area.

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