top of page

Lithium Brings Both Prosperity and Headaches to One of Brazil's Poorest Regions

The exploitation of the mineral in the Jequitinhonha Valley is creating thousands of jobs, but it's also causing disruptions among the poorest residents and threatening a nature reserve.

For years, the Jequitinhonha Valley in southeastern Brazil bore the stigma of being an impoverished corner, marked by hunger and illiteracy among its inhabitants. But beneath the dry crust of a landscape constantly punished by drought, a treasure was hidden: vast reserves of lithium, the "white oil," as some local politicians call it. This mineral, essential for making batteries for smartphones and electric cars, has sparked a new global frenzy and brought optimism to this downtrodden region. However, it is also leaving a troubling trail of side effects.

Local authorities quickly saw the opportunity: lithium as a golden chance to leave behind a past of misery. The governor of Minas Gerais, Romeu Zema, an ally of former President Jair Bolsonaro, unveiled the “Lithium Valley Brazil” project with great fanfare at Nasdaq, the New York Stock Exchange. The company leading the charge is the Canadian firm Sigma Lithium. Exactly a year ago, it shipped the first tons of Brazilian lithium to China. The company claims to be the first miner in the world to produce “green lithium,” as it uses clean energy, sources non-potable water, and avoids using waste dams, instead preparing and selling the waste to other companies.

Those piled-up residues are easily seen from the houses in the small village of Poço Dantas, where the families most affected by lithium extraction live. Since the plant's inauguration, they have been living with constant dust clouds and the noise of explosions the company carries out underground to extract the mineral. Many of the humble brick houses have cracks. "They promote green lithium, saying it's sustainable and all that, but it's not. It's a greedy exploitation," criticizes Vanderlei Pinheiro de Souza, a resident of the rural area. He practices subsistence farming, "what used to be called a farmer," he jokes. He grows beans, corn, and cassava for his own consumption, and when he has extra, he sells it to make some money. He feels that with the arrival of the company, a traditional way of life is being broken, and the already damaged natural balance of the area is being threatened.

"It's the same old marketing," criticizes Nicolly Caroline, an activist with the MAB, the organization that prevented Sigma from surveying the lithium deposits in the natural park, over the phone. She lists a long series of problems, from the dust covering the town to the increase in gender violence due to the numerous outsiders who have arrived in recent months. In her opinion, the lithium rush is short-term gain and long-term pain. "Of course, people need jobs to survive. But all these jobs are temporary. People who go to work in certain areas come back worse off, with respiratory illnesses. Then the company leaves, and all we're left with are the impacts. We are humble people, when will we ever be able to afford an electric car?" she asks.

bottom of page