“Everything That Exists on Our Planet Has Life” — South America’s Indigenous Defend Sacred Sites Against Lithium Miners

Within 60 days, the Supreme Court, Congress and presidential administration of Argentina are expected to decide: will the Ocloya people, indigenous to the northwest province of Jujuy, be forced to cope with an onslaught of international mining companies eager for the rich lithium deposits on their sacred land, or will the companies need to comply with local regulations and property rights which protect the natives and their land?

Indigenous communities of the Salinas Grandes protest against lithium mining on their territory
 Indigenous communities of the Salinas Grandes protest against lithium mining on their territory (Photo by Felix Malte Dorn, Shuttertock.com)

The Ocloya live on what’s known as the Lithium Triangle, a large area of the Andes stretching into parts of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina that contains vast reserves of lithium. On December 16, heavily armed men forcibly removed a group of Indigenous activists who had been camped in Buenos Aires since the summer—long enough for them to make their case in Argentina’s capital against the change in Jujuy’s provincial constitution that now favored the mining companies.

“There are some mining projects already in progress, and others getting government authorization. We’ll keep resisting them,” said Néstor Jerez, “cacique,” or head man, of the Ocloya people and one of the protest leaders. “They cause serious damage to the environment and are a kind of pillage of Pachamama,” the South American earth goddess.

The Ocloya—who have farmed and ranched on the land since ancient times—see the lithium extraction as a disruption to their livelihood. Lithium mining requires huge volumes of water, a scarce commodity in the dry climate of the province, a very real danger that denies supplies for irrigation of the crops and pasturing of cattle while also polluting streams and groundwater.

But most importantly, the intrusion of the lithium mining companies disrupts the sacred balance of the three worlds: the upper world (Hanan Pacha—the domain of the stars, the moon and the gods);  the present world (Kay Pacha—the realm of humans, animals and the environment); and the underworld (Ukhu Pacha—the sphere of the dead and the rich minerals beneath the soil).

Moreover, as Rev. Vidal Zerpa, an Indigenous member of the Roman Catholic Church’s National Team of Indigenous Pastoral, an activist organization, points out, “For the Andean peoples, mountains have no rank of divinity, but they’re protective beings or locations and for this reason they are sacred. Mountains are also linked to the condors.”

Condors, to the Andean peoples, are beings that connect the upper and present worlds—just as caves and other openings in the earth connect the lower and present worlds. These worlds are also connected through ceremonial rites.

“For us in the Andes, everything that exists on our planet has life: people and animals, rocks, mountains, rivers, plants, trees. Nothing is quiet, not even the stars, the moon or the sun,” Zerpa said.

In the Chilean and Brazilian parts of the Lithium Triangle there is also concern among the Indigenous. In Chile, Colla leader Elena Rivera, a member of the National Colla People Council, said, “We know of the damages caused to the environment by lithium exploitation operations. The environmental measures applied here in Chile are favorable to the companies.” Rivera said that the Colla people perform religious ceremonies close to the salt flats and mountains. “In the mountains, there are huacas (sanctuaries containing sacred rock sculptures) left by ancestral societies. In regions that may be exploited, close to salt flats, there are centuries-old cemeteries,” she said.

In Brazil, a village where the indigenous Pankararu and Pataxó live just a few miles from the base of the Canadian mining company Sigma Lithium, dust from the blasting in the mine has become a problem. The company uses water from nearby rivers to ease the impact of the dust, “But the dust is here,” says Cleonice Pankararu, a biologist and a member of the Pankararu people. “It affects our lungs, especially for children. The explosions cause great vibration and disturb the local fauna. We have been noticing there is a concentration of bats and bees in our territory now,” she said.

Again, as with the others whose lives are being disrupted, the main concern is spiritual. The rivers and the mountains of the area are home to the “enchanted”—spiritual entities revered by the Pankararu. The destruction of their environment has saddened many villagers, especially the elders, Cleonice said.

A key part of the Pankararu faith is the toré ritual, with the “enchanted” wearing the croá-made praiás, or sacred garments. Croá is a flowering plant whose habitat is being destroyed by the mining company. Without it, the ritual cannot be performed.

As the Ocloya’s Néstor Jerez explains, “Our life is based on the idea of buen vivir (good living). All elements must coexist in balance. We don’t live in the territory, we’re part of it.”


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Indigenous religions Argentina Ocloya Chile Bolivia