Protests in a remote corner of Argentina disrupt the cosy picture of a green future promised by advertising for electric vehicles. In this blog we explore the hidden web of supply chains that support the EV “revolution” and the true cost of electric mobility for communities and ecosystems around the world.
Adverts for electric vehicles promise a future of clean, green mobility. In an advert for the newly announced Toyota bZ range, viewers were invited to “imagine a world where cars emit water.”
But recent protests in north-western Argentina point to a darker reality belying the gloss of the marketing, a reality in which the green transport “revolution” clashes with the desperate struggle of indigenous people to protect their lives and livelihoods from destruction, including by none other than Toyota itself.
Lithium mining is widespread across the border of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, an area known as the lithium triangle. Due to the explosion in demand for EVs around the world in recent years, the triangle has become a hotbed of activity with mining corporations, battery manufacturers and even carmakers vying for access to lithium. A single EV battery can require 60kg of lithium.
Lithium in the triangle is found in salts. The metal itself is extracted through evaporation via gigantic water baths. The process is incredibly water-intensive: extracting one ton of lithium can use over two million litres of water.
This has led to tension with local people in the region, who already struggle to access water and have developed community-based water management systems over generations. These systems are now threatened by lithium mining, adding to water stress.
Amongst the companies operating in the lithium triangle is carmaker Toyota.
Toyota-Tsusho, part of the Toyota Group alongside Toyota Motor, manages a lithium mine at Olaroz in the Jujuy region of Argentina. The mine supplies lithium to Prime Planet Energy & Solutions, a joint venture between Toyota and Panasonic which produces EV batteries which are in turn supplied to Toyota Motor.
It is not possible to prove that lithium from a given mine ended up in any given car, but Toyota’s contribution to environmental issues in Argentina through participation in lithium extraction is clear. The Olaroz site produced 13,000 tonnes of lithium in 2022, equivalent to 29,459,000 litres of water.
Toyota is further implicated in the lithium triangle via its association with CATL, the world’s largest producer of EV batteries, to provide batteries for the Chinese EV market.
In 2021, CATL acquired Millennial Lithium Corp, a Canadian mining company, and its operations in Cauchari, Argentina. Earlier this year, CATL acquired further lithium mines in Bolivia, again inside the triangle. Alongside Toyota, CATL provides batteries to VW, Hyundai, Volvo, BMW and Honda.
In recent weeks lithium mining has become a flashpoint for protests in Jujuy, north-west Argentina, sparked by local constitutional reform pushed by the regional governor, Gerardo Morales. The reforms open more land to extractivist corporations, further threatening water access for Indigenous people.
Protesters say “water is worth more than lithium”, and, “We’re not going to let them sacrifice us for others to ride in electric cars”, demonstrating the clear links between local struggle and the global EV “transition”.
Campaigners, many of them Indigenous and campesinos, say the reforms were rushed and failed to provide adequate consultation. The planned 90 day process was completed in three weeks.
The reforms also limit the right to protest and have already led to mass arrests of protesters who have gathered at the prominent location of the meeting of National Routes 9 and 52, the confluence of traditional territories Olaroz, Susques, Laguna Guayatayoc, La Quiaca, Abra Pampa and Humahuaca.
The exploitation of Indigenous people in Jujuy is sadly not isolated. Across the world communities and ecosystems are being ravaged by a new scramble for resources to fuel the EV “revolution”.
- Nickel mining in Indonesia pollutes rivers and drowns coral reefs (to which Toyota is connected via association with BASF, who co-own the Weda Bay facility)
- Cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo employ child labour (to which Toyota is linked via cobalt battery materials supplied to PPES by BASF TODA Battery Materials LLC, which in turn acquires cobalt from Huayou, a Chinese company at “high risk” of buying from mines that use child labour)
- Steel and aluminium extraction is linked to Uighur forced labour in Xinjiang, China (Xinjiang Joinworld, an aluminium company, supplies many car companies, including Toyota, via subsidiary Minth, who have also been known to supply Honda, Nissan, Infiniti, Toyota, Lexus, Isuzu, Ford, Jeep, Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda, SEAT, Bentley, Porsche, Fiat, Daimler, BMW, Rolls-Royce, Peugeot, Citroen, Volvo, Polestar, Renault, Jaguar Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Suzuki, Hyundai, Genesis, KIA).
And that’s before mentioning the greenhouse gas emissions from the mining, smelting and processing of the above materials, which are in the billions of tons per year.
EV adverts present a world of guilt-free driving. But look behind the ad and you see that this dream has a hidden cost in human and environmental exploitation. This blog has focused on Toyota as a particularly bad actor in this regard, yet many of the claims made could be levelled against other carmakers.
From the release of the Prius in 1997, Toyota has enjoyed a global status as a ‘green’ carmaker. However, in a recent ranking by global EV campaign Lead the Charge, Toyota ranked 12th of 18 carmakers on a scoring system taking into account the environmental and social impacts of carmakers’ EV transitions.
As that transition continues, the gulf between carmakers’ marketing and the reality of their production is becoming wider and wider. To bring the car industry back down to earth, we need tighter regulations on car advertising.
- All EV ads should contain information about the sourcing of material elements, including lithium, cobalt and nickel, to ensure accountability to customers and to reflect the true cost of production
- As argued in the recently published position paper by Adfree CIties and Badvertising, EVs are all too often used as a marketing ploy by carmakers to continue selling petrol and diesel cars. It is therefore vital to implement a high-carbon ad ban to restrict advertising for such cars and prevent the advertising of the most polluting cars altogether.
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