Need Lithium and Other Metals? Time to Invest in Latin America

Latin America has remained too unstable to take the risk out of investment, but with neoliberal governments reversing the pink tide, investors are encouraged.
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Since the beginning of European colonialism in the 16th century, adventurers and investors have responded to the opportunities that exist to control entire zones where they can freely extract raw materials without being bothered by the local populations who may find them invasive. The traditional tactic involved a phase of military operations followed by the establishment of a local legal framework that applied the cultural and economic values of the invaders. By the 19th century, Africa and Asia had succumbed to this logic, allowing European companies to penetrate nearly to the “heart of darkness” and control those continents’ resources. Latin America hasn’t been so easy.

Five centuries after the conquest of the New World, the website Market Views has spotted a unique opportunity for alert investors. In an article published in July, the authors state: “Latin America has emerged as a mining-friendly jurisdiction with a wide range of international mining companies listed on Canadian, US, Australian and British stockmarkets [sic].” 

This truly is unique and having a safe “mining-friendly jurisdiction” couldn’t be more pertinent to the developed world’s needs. After all, the region “has the planet’s largest reserves of copper, lithium and silver with plenty of gold to boot.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Jurisdiction:

An area in which the local governments can be counted on to use their laws and military capabilities to protect the vital interests of outsiders seeking to make a profit from their resources

Contextual Note

The analysts divide the problem of the risk for investment in mining into two distinct categories: “below ground” and “above ground” risk. The intuition of 16th-century Spaniards was correct when they saw the Americas as full of below ground potential. As the authors point out: “The best thing about Latin America for mining investors is that it is incredibly rich in base and precious metals.” The Spanish at the time of Philip II were more interested in precious metals, but that was only because they were still waiting for the English to invent the Industrial Revolution two centuries later, creating a rich market for a range of base metals.

It turns out that in recent times, after the wane of European colonialism and the largely fitful US neocolonialism in South America that followed the Monroe Doctrine, the above ground risks have been putting investors off. In the words of the authors: “Latin America was blighted by political instability ever since independence with frequent periods of military rule and most countries only returning to democracy within the last 40 years.” Whether they are justified in calling the majority of Latin American countries — like Brazil, Chile and now Bolivia — examples of democracy remains a matter of debate.

More realistically, the authors observe: “The political instability hindered mining investment in the region because you need a relatively stable and efficient state to create a fair mechanism for the ongoing transaction between the country’s citizens — the ultimate owners of the metal — and the mining company.”

Do Western investors really acknowledge that the citizens are “owners of the metal?” In reality, they don’t care who claims to be the owner or in whose name local authorities sign away the exploitation rights. What investors care about is that the law of the land will be enforced by a government whose authority is respected, whether that respect is due to the democratic adhesion of the people or the loyalty of the military to the regime. They require the stability that will guarantee their persistent value of their investment.

The authors recognize one form of risk that the 16th-Spanish invaders never bothered to consider: “In many Latin American countries, the state’s role as arbiter is complicated by the fact that strong indigenous populations have alternative concepts of land ownership, such as ancestral community territories.”

This has been the classic problem for capitalism everywhere in the world. When Western companies discovered the extent of Arabian oil reserves in the 1930s, the Americans and British had to convince the Saud family, among others, that their Bedouin culture had gotten everything wrong. Bedouins had maintained a traditional belief that the desert was everyone’s home and no one’s property. Western lawyers taught the nomads the value of claiming ownership of the land and everything that existed “below ground.” Once the notion of property was instilled, dominant families like the house of Saud could get on with their tribe’s lucrative arrangements with Western companies that had the technical, financial and commercial expertise that allowed them to turn oil into hard cash.

Indigenous tribes in Latin America have never had much say concerning the laws or the contracts established with Western companies. Mexico managed to nationalize its oil after its revolution. Venezuela did so much later and has been suffering from it ever since. In recent decades, one nation did make a point of respecting not just indigenous title to its mineral resources, but also made a strong gesture toward the core values of indigenous culture. That was Bolivia. The experiment lasted 14 years, until just weeks ago, when a right-wing, militant group that pitted Christian fundamentalism against indigenous culture staged a coup that was supported and encouraged by the US. It successfully overthrew the government of indigenous hero Evo Morales, who was forced to flee to Mexico. 

Morales had made just enough political mistakes to give the coup the credibility it needed to justify its claim of a “restoration of democracy.” But the issues that justified the coup were not necessarily only a concern for the respect of democratic processes. The article reminds potential investors that “Argentina and Bolivia form part of the ‘lithium triangle’ with Chile,” as well as the fact that lithium is essential for the growing market of batteries for electric vehicles.

The article wants its readers to understand that successful mining companies have begun to master effective ways of appeasing the locals by offering them some economic advantages and creature comforts. One mining executive explained: “If a miner just tries to exchange money for lands it is a big mistake. You need to create a long-term relationship based on generating employment for local workers and providing some social infrastructure such as drinking water, energy, sewerage and so on.”

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This can appear to be either spontaneous generosity (of course, it isn’t) or a cynical calculation. Most likely, it’s a form of ideological adjustment to complete the plan of replacing a culture of sharing with a culture of self-interested lobbying in the name of maximum profit. That actually does sound cynical, but the ideology softens the impact of the criticism.

Everything seems to be evolving for the better: “Not only are miners becoming more adept at handling these issues, there are also signs that most Latin American states are improving their ability to regulate this complex transaction between investors and the citizens.” The Romans called it bread and circuses. This time it’s jobs and drinking water, at least for those who choose to congregate in the exploited areas where these advantages await those who are willing to drift away from their traditional culture.

Historical Note

The first paragraph of the Market View article correctly (though incompletely) summarizes the history behind European interest in South American mining: “Tales of Birú, a magical gold-laden land that we now know as Peru, were enough to convince Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro to lead a risky expedition against the Incas. In the short term, the mission was an outstanding success with Pizarro ransoming captured Inca emperor Atahualpa for 13,000 pounds (lbs) of gold and twice as much silver.”

Told in this way, the story presents Pizarro as a model of the good capitalist who knows how to convert “a risky expedition” into an “outstanding success.” The authors even appear to approve of Pizarro’s move to capture the Inca ruler. Their account nevertheless neglects some of the crucial events in this glorious episode of history. When Atahualpa refused to convert to Christianity, instead of turning the other cheek to the insult, Pizarro naturally launched a war in which he captured the Inca ruler. He then demanded that the Incas turn over “all of their gold and treasure for Atahualpa’s freedom. Despite the Inca giving them the riches, Pizarro still had Atahualpa killed in 1533.” Not what you would call fair play. Lewis Carroll in “The Walrus and the Carpenter” —- his poem summarizing British colonialism — would have called killing the hostage after receiving the ransom “a dismal thing to do.”

In the authors’ telling, Pizzaro appears to be a clever businessman, evaluating the risk, executing his plan and pressing his advantage to obtain maximum profit. They didn’t bother to mention the small detail of killing the captive after obtaining the ransom or the fact that the ransom was nothing less than all the collected treasure of the Incas. But as a forward-looking businessman, Pizzaro knew that there were lucrative investments to be made. Had he also found the fountain of youth, he might have survived long enough to read the article and would undoubtedly be pleased to learn that there are even more lucrative investments to be made today in Latin America.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

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