Lithium project in Puno raises thorny issues

18 August 2018

A Canadian exploration company, Plateau Energy Metals, has announced the discovery of an estimated 2.5 million tons of hard-rock lithium carbonate in Puno. It says that this could turn into one of the world’s largest lithium mines.

Lithium is a boom commodity given the growing demand for batteries; the price has tripled in the last three years. Company experts are talking of US$500 million annual exports from Peru. Peru’s total exports last year were worth $44 billion.

The news has set alarm bells ringing on many fronts. First, meticulous regulation will be needed; the lithium discovered can only be mined along with uranium. Rules governing mining radioactive materials do not currently exist, although President Vizcarra is quoted as saying that legislation may be ready in six months

A greater difficulty will be that the mine would be sited in one of the poorest and most populated parts of Puno, itself one of Peru’s most impoverished regions. To quote Narda Henríquez, a sociologist at Lima’s Catholic University, "Puno is one of the most populated regions of Peru, and its northern part, where the deposits were discovered, is one of its poorest areas, with a high rate of child malnutrition. Local communities and authorities are likely to pay close attention to how the project will affect health, water sources and the local agricultural production.” 

The challenges of generating resources to the benefit of an extremely poor region are enormous, especially given the conflicts to which they tend to give rise among and between local communities. Newcomers looking for work will further complicate social problems. There will also be all the usual issues of water and ground pollution.

A further challenge will arise given the region's cultural and archaeological importance. Plateau Energy Metals says that the lithium deposits lie outside a protected area and, and though the uranium deposits are within it, it says that the region’s heritage will not be directly affected. The company has pledged to work with environment and archaeological consultants, local communities and the Peruvian authorities to develop a protection plan for areas close to future infrastructure.

The Peruvian state will have to perform a key role from now on in protecting the livelihoods and cultural heritage of local communities. The exploration stage is often fundamental in determining how communities feel about a project as it moves on to development and production.

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