By Teddy Ostrow / FAIR
True to its name, the Wall Street Journal never fails to lay bare its corporate sympathies. In a recent feature headlined “The Place With the Most Lithium is Blowing the Electric-Car Revolution” (8/10/22), the Journal warps anti-neoliberal and Indigenous resistance to ecological destruction and resource plundering into pesky obstacles to green capitalist innovation.
The story is one of corporate tragedy: The so-called “Lithium Triangle,” a region that covers parts of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, is flush with the white metal that is integral to electric vehicle (EV) and battery production. But EV companies don’t have the full access they want, as Indigenous groups and leftist governments resist these foreign multinationals from taking the spoils and harming the environment while they do it.
‘A major bottleneck’
Reporter Ryan Dube deserves credit for quoting one Indigenous leader and one environmentalist about their concerns with lithium production in the region. These South American Indigenous populations reside in what climate justice groups have termed sacrifice zones, or what Thea Riofrancos (Logic, 12/7/19) has called the “extractive frontiers of the energy transition.” Lithium production in places like Chile’s Salar de Atacama induce water shortages, threatening the environment’s biodiversity and the livelihoods of those surrounding the salt flats—and often in breach of Indigenous peoples’ right to prior consultation and consent.
But these quotations and brief descriptions are eclipsed by pro-production voices, and language describing their resistance as “setbacks,” or a “challenge” to the “battery makers [who] desperately need” the lithium. We are told that the resistance is “stifling” production. That production has “suffered” as leftist governments seek “greater control over the mineral and a bigger share of profits.”
The muted treatment of Indigenous and environmental groups’ concerns works to reduce the “Lithium Triangle” to just that—its lithium. Indeed, the article warns that the entire South American continent could become “a major bottleneck” for the EV industry.
According to the Journal, the collection of countries that compose this “Saudi Arabia of lithium” are not equipped to reap their own land’s valuable resources. The article quotes Benjamin Gedan, acting director of the Latin American program at the US government-funded Wilson Center think tank (who FAIR—4/30/19—noted in 2019 expressed support for regime change in Venezuela):
Latin America specializes in killing golden geese, and one of the quickest ways to do so is through resource nationalism…. This boom could very quickly turn to bust if bad policies are brought forward.
This narrative is as patronizing as it is old. European colonists justified their genocidal conquest of the American continents by claiming Indigenous peoples weren’t properly using the lands they were living on. Today, EV companies and sympathetic analysts claim entitlement to South America’s lithium reserves because its emergent leftist governments won’t cede control of the resource to Western capital interests.
‘Ultimate cautionary tale’
The latest corporate worry is on Chile’s election last year of leftist President Gabriel Boric, who seeks to create a state lithium company to compete with private corporations. The country’s proposed rewrite of its dictatorship-era constitution (FAIR.org, 8/1/22) also has multinationals biting their nails, as it would expand Indigenous and environmental rights over mining.
Indeed, the Chilean popular uprisings in 2019 that prompted the country’s ongoing reforms were in part driven by the inequality and harm caused by the nation’s two private lithium producers—one of which has been run by the billionaire son-in-law of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet (Bloomberg, 6/23/22).
But Gedan and the Journal crown Bolivia, the country with the largest proportion of Indigenous people in South America, as the “ultimate cautionary tale” for resource nationalism. The article notes Bolivia’s lackluster lithium production since its former president Evo Morales nationalized the industry in 2008, with hopes to eventually make the country a battery and EV manufacturer itself.
Missing from the history lesson were the barriers Morales’ socialist government faced as a Global South country subjected to economic underdevelopment as a commodity exporter for richer nations. Most recently, that included the right-wing, US-backed coup of Morales’ government in 2019 (FAIR.org, 11/15/19), which—though contested—some believe was driven by multinational corporations who opposed his administration’s lithium production policies (Jacobin, 10/7/20). In any case, the coup illustrated the ruthlessness with which the US rejects Latin American governments that dare question Western control over their political and economic systems.
The Journal’s Dube also seemed to forget that the Morales government’s nationalization of hydrocarbons played a key role in the country cutting poverty by 42% and extreme poverty by 60% (CEPR, 10/17/19), among other internationally praised achievements. Indeed, Morales’ plans for an EV and battery industry in the country was a means to break its dependency on its highly successful state hydrocarbon sector.
Revolution for whom?
Most curiously missing, however, is critical discussion of the so-called “electric-vehicle revolution” the headline warns South America is “blowing.” A revolution for what? Electric vehicles for whom?
The piece fails to describe the alleged importance of EVs in mitigating the climate crisis. The word “climate” isn’t even used once. While lithium mining will be critical to putting the brakes on the climate catastrophe, it is debatable whether a revolution of individual electric cars will be our savior—rather than, say, a more equitable and much less resource-consumptive expansion of public transportation (Jacobin, 6/10/22).
But perhaps the absence of climate context is truer to the motives of EV companies’ race for Latin America’s golden geese, wrecking environments and lives in the process: corporate profits.
Emergent leftist governments in South America are resisting Western corporations’ meddling because they know that the communities most directly impacted by lithium mining won’t be the ones driving the Teslas at the end of the supply chain. The “revolution” was never for Latin America.
Western multinationals and their boosters at the Journal may long for a return to the “open veins of Latin America,” as Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano described the region’s outflowing plunder by colonial and neocolonial powers. They may view violating Indigenous rights and destroying ecosystems as the costs of doing business.
But the Indigenous groups and anti-neoliberal movements fighting to keep those veins closed—or open on their own terms—are not the obstacles. The Wall Street Journal shouldn’t frame them as such.