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National Lithium Strategy, yes, but with the workers of Chile

By Roberto Lobos and Horacio Fuentes - Constramet, April 2023

President Gabriel Boric presented his National Lithium Strategy, the great absentee in his speech were the workers of Chile, and we can not fail to point out our concern about it. This is why we want to express our opinion on the national chain and express some of the ideas of the workers' world.

In the more than twenty minutes that the President's speech lasted, several questions remained for the world of labour. The decision to move forward with the creation of a National Lithium Company, a campaign promise cast into doubt less than a week ago by the same government team, was welcomed. Yesterday's position, much more in line with the sentiments of the workers, is weighted for its positive value. It is clearly a decision that will have to be defended against the more neoliberal positions, which will oppose the strengthening of the state, which for us still needs to be delimited and clarified in greater depth.

The decision to transform Chile into the "main Lithium producer in the world" is an important bet; accompanying the energy transition process together with Green Hydrogen is part of the strategic development plan that CONSTRAMET and Plebeya have been working on, together with the need to discuss the current situation of copper in Chile in terms of the new energy matrix of the contemporary world-system. We highlight the decision to participate through the State in the entire production process by means of a national company, which is the only possible way towards redistributive economic growth.

With regard to exploration, exploitation and value addition from a "virtuous public-private partnership", there are several questions that plague us. Starting with the content of the link itself. Any process of dialogue between the state and the private sector must include the participation of workers. The greater the participation of the social world in sovereign decision-making in our country, the greater the strength of the public world in the negotiation process, the same for Codelco, today weakened to carry out the plan presented.

The designation of Codelco for the negotiation with SQM is a critical issue, everything indicates that the Chemical Society and Minera de Chile are really the first to enter the discussion table, clearly the first milestone is not the dialogue with the communities as the President says, but an engineering that benefits SQM. This is made explicit by the direct links of Máximo Pacheco, executive president of Codelco with SQM, which is not the only possible conflict of interest in the triangulation set up by the government.

A new governance with regard to national mining cannot start by repeating the damage done to Chile by the denationalisation of copper, nor by a privileged dialogue with Ponce Lerou that perpetuates the control of lithium in the hands of this interest group. There are too many silences in the government's proposal put forward yesterday. Defending a position that benefits the development of Chile must start from a new development model with transparent, public tenders and with the participation of the workers.

The terms of the concessions must be subject to a direct dialogue with the world of work. The same goes for the debate on the mining royalty; its discussion does not only involve negotiation with big business; a positive correlation of forces is built by adding actors and not subtracting them. The influence on the currency of groups such as SQM, which are highly socially questionable, is a direct consequence of our exclusion from the debate and planning of a true national strategic plan for lithium.

The absence of workers in yesterday's speech is worrying. There is no possibility of a national lithium strategy without workers being part of its elaboration. It will be our workforce that creates the possibilities for economic growth, the discussion on working conditions in the "virtuous partnership" is only possible if harmful practices for the world of work are not reproduced in other areas of the national economy, such as subcontracting in copper extraction.

Workers in Chile are also part of the community and a stakeholder in the debate about our national sovereignty. Nor can the real substrate of the geopolitical dispute behind the energy transition be absent from the discussion. It is important to promote a policy of dialogue with our neighbours in the so-called "lithium triangle" that strengthens us in the negotiation processes with the foreign private sector. The "virtuosity" of the relationship and the "chance" of getting things "right" also depend on it.

It is important to clarify which clauses we will discuss as a sovereign country with regard to its resources and its decisions to guarantee participation in the production cycle, the creation of added value and environmental care. There is a clear global need to transition to more sustainable energies, but how this conversion is carried out cannot be left out of the participation of value creators.

The commitment to advance technological research that minimises the impact on the ecosystems of the salt flats must not remain in the rhetoric of intentionality. It is essential to link foreign investment directly, through funds for research, which must be public and independent of the interests of foreign capital. All resource exploitation generates environmental impact, so it is essential that investment funds should be the vehicle for a policy of reparation and financing of protected areas to safeguard our national biodiversity.

Promoting a national economic policy that is part of this process must be accompanied by an industrial development plan that not only puts us at the forefront of lithium production, but also of the technological progress that will accompany this global transformation. The first milestone of the National Strategy cannot be exclusion, there is no development possible without the workers of the homeland. We support the measures that mean progress for the country, and we expect the immediate inclusion of the voice of the workers in the public debate of our national sovereignty.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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