Lithium mining poses numerous environmental and human rights risks. As part of the Sector Dialogue Automotive Industry, Germanwatch therefore collaborated with stakeholders from industry and politics in the development of “cross-country recommendations for responsible lithium mining and recommended actions” in the “Lithium Project Group”. The paper identifies four risk areas and makes recommendations on how they can be addressed by the companies in the supply chain that mine and purchase lithium. Germanwatch supports the recommendations. However, we do see some key gaps in achieving a globally sustainable and equitable economy within planetary boundaries.
On the positive side, the recommendations include the rights of indigenous communities to reject lithium projects under the principle of “Free, Prior and Informed Consent”, FPIC for short. In addition to this “Right to Say No”, the recommendations assign a central role to the enormous impact that lithium mining from salt lakes has on local water resources. The paper also emphasises the importance of involving local communities and environmental and human rights defenders. It also identifies concrete measures that companies can take together with other actors to strengthen the protection of human rights and the environment in lithium supply chains. In addition to so-called “blind funds” for the creation of independent financing, they also include environmental monitoring approaches carried out by local communities. The document also includes recommendations for lithium-purchasing companies to participate in remedial measures and reparation. It is also clear from the recommendations that companies should not rely solely on industry standards. We do regret, however, that it has not been stated explicitly that companies must continue to carry out their own due diligence measures, and must not outsource their responsibility to third parties.
After the Lithium Project Group developed the cross-country recommendations for responsible lithium mining and the recommended actions, companies and experts from various fields and civil society organisations from South America were invited to comment and discuss the matter further in a second step. On this basis, the project group revised the recommendations in a final step. Although a great deal of feedback was included in the document, it was not possible to reach a consensus on some points – in particular from civil society. This was due in part to the fact that the thematic focus of the recommendations was on human rights. This created gaps in the paper that we view critically. There is a lack of a holistic view of the problem of unevenly distributed, high resource consumption and the unfair distribution of value creation along the supply chain at the expense of the mining regions. The recommendations say nothing about further measures that are urgently needed for the responsible use of lithium as a raw material. On the one hand, this includes measures along different stages in the supply chain such as the reduction of the carbon footprint during processing and transportation. On the other hand, changes on the demand side are central. Circular economy models reduce the demand for primary raw materials in the long term. This preventively reduces the (potentially) negative human rights effects of raw material extraction.
With the publication of the cross-country recommendations for responsible lithium mining and recommended actions, the Lithium Project Group has fulfilled its mandate and is disbanding. Irrespective of this, Germanwatch will continue to participate in the Sector Dialogue Automotive Industry and actively demand and critically follow the implementation of the cross-country recommendations for responsible lithium mining and recommended actions from the three companies in the project group. In addition, we are also expecting other members from the Sector Dialogue to support the recommendations and integrate them in their corporate practice.
The cross-country recommendations for responsible lithium mining and recommended actions address the following risk areas:
- Human rights and environmental impact assessments (HRIA and ESIA)
- Water and environmental management
- Rightsholder engagement
- Protection of human rights and environmental defenders
The Sector Dialogue Automotive Industry is a multi-stakeholder initiative within the framework of the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (Nationaler Aktionsplan Wirtschaft und Menschenrechte, NAP). The dialogue is conducted by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (Bundesministerium für Arbeit und Soziales, BMAS), and consists of 34 members including companies, associations, trade unions, civil society organisations, initiatives, the German Institute for Human Rights and BMAS.
The English version of the Cross-country recommendations for responsible lithium mining and recommended actions will be available soon.