Landscapes of transition: state, company and Indigenous community human rights dynamics in South America’s lithium triangle

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Copyright: Symington, Andy
The scramble for minerals, such as lithium, critical to renewable energy technologies is a feature of our race to decarbonise. At the same time, changing societal expectations are increasing pressure on companies to operate in a manner that respects human rights, including Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Situated at the nexus of these global trends, this thesis examines business and human rights (BHR) dynamics at rights-holder level in the context of extraction in South America’s ‘lithium triangle’. Examining how legal and non-legal factors translate to corporate behaviour and rights outcomes on the ground, the thesis addresses the research question: What are the key intersecting factors shaping corporate engagement with Indigenous communities and their rights in the lithium triangle? Based on extensive in-person empirical research in the region, it examines the complex dynamics between governments, companies and Indigenous communities. Empirical chapters reveal a broad range of factors influencing corporate engagement and thereby better rights outcomes. These can be distilled into four key themes: 1. Human rights pathways: state human rights commitments are transmitted to lithium triangle companies by more indirect means than traditional compliance with horizontal obligations would demonstrate. 2. Shifting dynamics: changing expectations of companies, particularly in the context of decarbonisation, has created a rapidly evolving landscape of pressure on companies from downstream customers and other actors in the lithium value chain. 3. Indigenous rights: Indigenous communities in the lithium triangle have become powerful advocates for their own rights, creating significant bottom-up influence and altering traditional corporate perceptions of risk. 4. State absence: partial absence and significant lack of capacity of the state has resulted in the effective ‘privatisation’ of certain rights, leaving companies to fill the gap. That lithium technology is potentially rights-enhancing at a global level while its extraction at local level may be rights-endangering is a juxtaposition foregrounding the need for a just transition and raising interesting questions about the realities of rights on the ground in the presence of a prevailing global economic imperative. The lithium triangle is a powerful case study highlighting the need for governments, companies and communities to work closely together to minimise negative rights impacts and maximise positive outcomes.
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PhD Doctorate
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