Ytxaha Pankararu Pataxó wearing long feather earrings and a red T-shirt bearing the words “End the Indigenous genocide”
Ytxaha Pankararu Pataxó says her Indigenous village is surrounded by “megaprojects”. Credit: Eleonore Hughes

A brand-new 4x4 snakes its way through the dimly lit tunnels of Brazil’s oldest underground lithium mine. The mine is run by the Brazilian Lithium Company (CBL) in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, known for its wealth of minerals, lush green valleys and colonial-era towns. I’m surrounded by bustling activity: trucks scooping out materials from inside the mountain, horns blaring as other vehicles snake around the many bends. Like an ant colony, each person below ground has a specific job while contributing to a collective project: the extraction of hard rock containing lithium.

Uses for the mineral range from mood-stabilising medication to nuclear energy, but it is as a component of rechargeable batteries – such as those used in electric cars – that demand has exploded. Electric vehicles are key to decarbonising road transport, a sector that accounts for around one-sixth of global emissions, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. The organisation predicts that demand could increase by over 40 times by 2040, sparking a race to scale up production of a mineral that has earned the nickname “white gold”.

Lithium mostly comes from salt brine or hard rock. Brines are more common in the “lithium triangle” of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, while hard rock is primarily sourced from Australia, China and Brazil, which holds around 8 per cent of the world’s supply. Most of Brazil’s reserves are here in Jequitinhonha Valley, where privately owned CBL has been producing hard rock, or spodumene, from its Waterfall mine since the early 1990s. Brazilian officials point out that the lithium found in Minas Gerais is of a “higher purity”, thus creating more powerful batteries. The mines and energy ministry also argues that extracting hard rock is more water-efficient than extracting brines.

As our small group descends for a tour of CBL’s mine, the air heats up. Claustrophobia kicks in. Fear not, our guide reassures us, the company uses models to calculate the extent to which they can mine without risking collapse. But I still feel nervous. A geologist who is part of our group says the number of alleyways has jumped from five to eight in the last three years. Production has more than quadrupled, now standing at 45,000 metric tonnes a year.

Valley of opportunity

CBL was once alone in the region, but around half a dozen companies have swooped in to join them in recent years. Of the new wave, Canada’s Sigma Lithium was the first to start exporting the mineral in early 2023. Atlas Lithium, headquartered in Florida, is expected to follow suit, as are AMG Brasil, Latin Resources and Lithium Ionic. Mining procedures, which define the area where a company can search for mineral substances, have jumped by over 700 per cent in the last two decades.

Minas Gerais state governor Romeu Zema has welcomed these foreign investors. Jequitinhonha used to be known as the “valley of misery” due to abounding poverty. Local politicians and Brazilian federal officials swear that the arrival of these new companies in the context of the energy transition will turn the area into the “valley of opportunity”, bringing much-needed jobs and injecting cash into the struggling economy.

On my visit to Araçuaí, one of Jequitinhonha Valley’s largest towns, the sounds of construction work echo out across the formerly sleepy city. Hotels are full and new buildings are sprouting up. Restaurants display their menus in English as well as Portuguese – once unimaginable for a town eight hours away from the nearest international airport. Alessandra Pereira, 39, who runs a small restaurant tucked away in the corner of Araçuaí’s permanent market, is delighted. In the last couple of years, her lunchtime clients have almost tripled, eager to devour her plates of homemade rice, feijão and stewed meat. “I’m able to give more opportunities to my three kids, maybe even send them to university,” she told me, beaming.

But there is a darker side to the lithium boom. Rafael Oliveira [not his real name], 27, comes from a quilombo community – a settlement founded by people who escaped from slavery. The softly spoken activist greets us on a dusty roundabout wearing a T-shirt with the logo of the Movement for People Affected by Dams (MAB), the group he organises with. He says the current boom in Araçuaí echoes a longer history of extractive industry in Minas Gerais, a state whose name in Portuguese – “General Mines” – references its underground riches. Diamonds and gold sparked a rush in the 18th century. Eucalyptus and granite later provoked similar fevers. And now lithium. “Benefits always go elsewhere. Nothing stays here – apart from holes,” he said.

In recent weeks, Oliveira’s fears have become even more acute. He explains that mining companies are interested in the land around communities like his, which currently belongs to plantation owners. The latter cannot sell their land without the consent of quilombo settlements. “Plantation owners get angry,” said Oliveira, who is concerned about his safety as an activist.

Daily detonations

Some locals say that a more subtle form of violence has already begun. The Poço Dantas hamlet used to be a peaceful haven made up of a dozen or so bungalows with orange-tiled roofs, surrounded by stocky palm trees and green foliage. Residents took pride in living outside the hustle and bustle of Araçuaí. Now, they are angry and exhausted. Since the Canadian company Sigma started its mining project on the hills opposite them a few years ago, life has become unbearable. Nearly daily detonations and the incessant noise of machines swamps the birdsong, now only audible on Sundays. Dust clouds blow over the valley towards the hamlet and are suspected of causing respiratory problems. (Sigma did not respond to a request for comment.)

Poço Dantas inhabitants have also watched in horror as cracks have appeared in the walls of their homes. In some, the fissures run from the ceiling to the upper corner of a door or window. In others, they appear seemingly from nowhere in the middle of a bedroom wall. “This house was perfect before they started detonating,” said Maria de Fatima de Matos dos Santos, a 66-year-old retiree who has lived in her yellow-walled home in Poço Dantas for 20 years. She now fears it may have structural problems. While compensation from a fund provided by Sigma may yet land in the bank accounts of affected residents, they fear it won’t be enough to buy another house – especially in the wake of inflation sparked by the sudden interest in the region. Even fair compensation would struggle to make up for the pain of having to leave their homes, their neighbours and their land. “But staying is impossible,” said dos Santos’s younger sister, Maura, who suffers from depression. “Everything is finished for us.”

Ytxaha Pankararu Pataxó (her surnames are the names of her tribes) lives in the Cinta Vermelha-Jundiba Indigenous village on the outskirts of Araçuaí. To visit her, I make my way down a windy, dirt track, across a parched open space with sparsely dotted trees, to the community’s main hut, capable of sheltering around 100 people beneath its straw roof. Under this welcome shade, the 27-year-old sits next to a table laden with handmade necklaces and bracelets, and a few copies of a poetry collection. Yellow feather earrings dangle from her ears, mingling with the dark shiny hair that runs down her back. Her red T-shirt has “End the Indigenous genocide” emblazoned on it.

Ytxaha’s grandparents in Pernambuco state were forced to leave their land due to a hydro-electric dam, and she fears a similar fate. The territory where she lives appears on the plans mapping the region’s lithium reserves and she worries that one day she will wake up to the sound of machinery. “It’s always the same kind of megaprojects that are surrounding us,” Ytxaha said. She defines them as “anti-life”.

Environmental changes

Water is at the heart of her concerns. According to Sigma’s website, the company recycles 100 per cent of the water used at its Groto do Cirilo mine, drawing water from the nearby Jequitinhonha River only “minimally”. But in a region where the resource is scarce, fears around the inevitably water-intensive activity abound. The eight families that make up Ytxaha’s small village usually have enough for drinking, cooking and washing thanks to water deliveries funded by the federal Indigenous health agency. But supplies are limited. Even for domestic water, local communities are competing with mining companies. “The water company didn’t want to supply us because Sigma had contracted them,” said Ytxaha. Although the situation was later resolved after intense negotiations, she said they went a month with intermittent water supply – and she fears it won’t be the last time.

The Indigenous community has also observed an acceleration in environmental changes since the start of Sigma’s activities, including disruption to wildlife. “More and more bats and bees are disoriented,” Ytxaha said. “We’re worried [about] becoming increasingly impoverished, and that eventually all forms of life are going to be exterminated here.” Mountains – such as the ones CBL, Sigma and other mining companies are perforating – are sacred to their way of life. “Their destruction impacts our culture, the survival of our enchanted spirits,” Ytxaha added. For decades, Indigenous populations have warned of the severe environmental damage caused by extractive projects – but their concerns have, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears.

Can a balance be sought, where mineral extraction is possible, while minimising the destruction of communities and the environment? Some form of mining is desirable, according to Elaine Santos, who researches critical minerals at the University of São Paulo. Minerals are used to produce electricity, build homes and mobile phones and in life-saving medical devices and medications. “Because of the society we live in, I think it would be very difficult to stop all mining,” Santos said. The nature of mining means some harm is inevitable, said Tadeu Barbosa, the mayor of Araçuaí. “There’s no way you can eat an omelette without breaking an egg. Mining is like that, if it’s not here it will be somewhere else,” Barbosa said during an interview at the town hall, the Brazilian flag hanging on a mast beside him.

Oliveira – the activist with MAB – says the group is not pushing for an end to mining, but for a different kind that leaves benefits to the region rather than a trail of destruction. Similarly, Ytxaha says their main demand is for traditional populations to be listened to. “Companies need to be up front about the fact that their activities are not sustainable or green,” she said. With the terms of the conversation clear, the community is willing to take part in discussions around how the frenzy can truly benefit the local economy.

A better way of doing things?

Such a conversation must be held at a federal level, according to Araçuaí’s mayor. “Brazil needs to define what it wants. It’s not only up to Araçuaí – this is a matter for public state policy,” he said. But despite their political differences, leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has largely adopted the strategy of his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, according to Santos. The far-right former president removed the restrictions on the import and export of lithium, revoking a decades-old policy of protectionism – a move that favoured the markets at the expense of the Brazilian population, said Santos.

Listening to local communities and building a development with them – rather than imposing a top-down model – is key to ensuring that they benefit, according to Bruno Milanez, a professor in the engineering department at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora. Mines always have an end date, so the challenge is to ensure that residents are better off when companies leave the area. Oliveira is full of suggestions. “Why not build a battery factory to generate employment for the people here? Why not make it easier for people to have their own homes so that they no longer need to rent?” He also voiced frustration at the poor state of some of the narrow, potholed roads around Araçuaí, which might be improved. “Those who explore minerals should look at the people here not as pawns but as future owners of the territory and the companies,” he added.

Brazilian officials agree that developing the supply chain is one way of ensuring that the region is not reduced to an extractive site, and instead generates added value. CBL, as a Brazilian company, is already in that dynamic, with its chemical plant – located a three-hour drive away from the mine – that transforms spodumene into lithium hydroxide monohydrate. It then exports technical-grade and battery-grade lithium carbonate to China and Germany. Others should be encouraged to follow suit, said Santos, so that Brazil can avoid the trap of solely exporting raw materials – a predicament common in other Latin American countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela.

On a wider scale, developing the lithium industry and broadly introducing electric vehicles is not enough for Brazil – or the world – to mitigate climate change, says Professor Milanez. “There is not enough lithium in the world to supply all the energy we consume today,” he said. Focusing on changing technologies will ensure that rich countries continue to consume large amounts of energy with a cleaner conscience but will do little to bring the world back from the brink of environmental collapse, he added.

Some environmentalists are instead pushing for a reorganisation of society that would decrease energy demand, which implies changing the meaning of development. In Brazil, Lula’s Workers Party has a history of associating the concept with industrialisation and extractivism. “Development for them is oil, machines and workers wearing uniforms. Not traditional fishermen and riverine communities,” said Milanez. In addition, Lula is backing the opening of a new oil frontier near the mouth of the Amazon River. The mines and energy ministry has argued that drilling in the extremely environmentally sensitive zone is necessary to replace dwindling reserves in the lucrative pre-salt fields off the country’s southeastern coast. But the move is in obvious tension with the stated politics of the president, who has put the defence of Indigenous rights and the environment at the heart of his speeches.

Back in Jequitinhonha valley, Ytxaha Pankararu Pataxó is fighting for demarcation of the territory where she lives, which would protect it from invaders. “We, Indigenous people, cultivate the future, even though our day is full of challenges and injustices. We don’t have the option of giving up,” she said. Ytxaha takes me for a tour of the village, surrounded by rolling hills, characteristic of Minas Gerais. Gazing at them, she wondered out loud, “What is going to be left for future generations?”

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.