Tensions mount as China starts global mining for green tech

This tension has escalated as China, a dominant player in the mineral processing industry crucial for the green economy, increases its mining activities. Just a decade ago, a Chinese firm made its first investment in the “lithium triangle”—an area spanning Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile that contains the majority of the world’s lithium reserves.

Earlier this year, Ai Qing experienced a startling disturbance while residing in northern Argentina. She was abruptly awakened in the middle of the night by loud, angry chants from outside her dormitory. Looking out her window, she saw a crowd of Argentine workers encircling the compound and blocking the entrance with flaming tires. “The sky was illuminated by the flames. It felt like a full-scale riot was underway,” recounted Ms. Ai, an employee of a Chinese company involved in extracting lithium from the Andes’ salt flats, a critical component for battery production.

This incident stemmed from the dismissal of several Argentine workers and represents a broader pattern of growing tensions between Chinese businesses and the local communities in which they operate.

Subsequent Chinese investments in local mining operations have been substantial. Reports from mining publications, corporate announcements, government sources, and media outlets indicate a significant expansion. According to the media, Chinese companies currently control approximately 33% of lithium from ongoing production projects or those under construction. However, this expansion has not been without controversy, as these companies have encountered numerous allegations of abuses commonly associated with large international mining operations.

For Ai Qing, the tire-burning protest was a harsh introduction to the complexities of her new environment. Despite hoping for a tranquil life in Argentina, she found herself engaged in conflict resolution, leveraging her Spanish language skills. “The challenge goes beyond language barriers,” she explained. “We often need to moderate between management’s perceptions of worker laziness and dependency on unions and the local view that Chinese presence is purely exploitative.”

Globally, the Global China Unit has identified at least 62 mining projects involving Chinese stakes focused on extracting lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese—minerals essential for producing lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles and other green technologies. With projects among the world’s largest mineral producers, China’s refining capabilities have also bolstered its position in manufacturing sectors related to green technologies, such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels. In 2023, China manufactured over half of the global electric vehicles, held 60% of the world’s wind turbine production capacity, and controlled at least 80% of the solar panel supply chain stages, per a Chatham House report.

These advancements have made such technologies more affordable and accessible worldwide. However, the UN highlights the global necessity for these minerals, predicting a six-fold increase by 2040 to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In response, regions like the US, UK, and EU are developing strategies to lessen their dependence on Chinese resources.

As Chinese companies ramp up their international mining efforts, the volume of reported issues has correspondingly increased. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, an NGO, published a report last year detailing 102 allegations against Chinese mining firms, ranging from violations of local community rights to environmental damage and unsafe working conditions.

These global issues are mirrored in individual stories from diverse locations. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, residents near the Jinchuan Group’s Ruashi cobalt mine report frequent disruptions from blasting operations. In Indonesia, the Lygend Resources and Technology’s joint venture with the Harita Group on Obi Island has been accused of causing environmental damage and pressuring villagers to relocate under unfavorable conditions.

Despite the challenges and criticisms, Chinese involvement in global mining appears set to grow, driven by strategic business decisions focusing on profitability. This ongoing expansion suggests that the presence and influence of Chinese mining operations will continue to be a significant, and sometimes contentious, element of the global shift towards sustainable energy technologies.

Latest articles

Criminals barred from changing names in BC

Canada’s westernmost province, British Columbia, will now prevent individuals who have committed serious crimes from changing their names. This decision follows revelations that a...

Climate crisis making economic crisis worse

The economic impact of climate change is six times worse than previously believed, with global warming poised to reduce wealth on a scale comparable...

UK: Rishi Sunak-Akshata Murty’s wealth rise by £120m in a year

The personal fortune of Rishi Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, has increased by £120 million as the next general election approaches, according to...

Is US economy still struggling?

The United States finds itself amidst an intriguing economic surge, which carries implications not just for its own trajectory but also for global power...

Related articles