Standing against rampant lithium extraction in the North of Argentina, El Tercer Malón de la Paz — the Third Indigenous Raid for Peace — arrived in the capital of Buenos Aires on August 1, the day of Mother Earth, or Pachamama. Modeled on similar Indigenous protests held in 1946 and 2006, the Malón included 1,000 representatives from 400 communities who wanted their demands heard in Congress after the governor of Jujuy, Gerárdo Morales, passed a constitutional reform to modify existing laws this past June, undermining Indigenous land rights and the right to protest.
Since then, artists of the Malón have showcased their rich Andean heritage and their struggle through sign-making workshops, mural painting, and music.
“Artistic expressions are a natural and essential part of the Malón,” Eliseo Alvarez Prado told Hyperallergic. He is a Coya musician from Tilcara, Jujuy, a member of the Indigenous Council of South America (CISA), and a co-creator of the first Indigenous sound art festival in 2022. “Our demands translate themselves into songs, coplas, collective dances, signs, and murals that start to appear wherever we go.”
Argentina is the world’s fourth-largest lithium producer, with 21% of the world’s reserves. This metal, considered “white gold,” is used in smartphones, laptops, and electric cars and can be found in areas bordering the Andes mountains. Known as the “lithium triangle,” encompassing Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile’s borders, the ancestral lands of Indigenous communities are threatened by the rampant extraction of this metal, exacerbated by Jujuy’s recent legislation.
National and international artists have expressed solidarity with the Malón. In September, hundreds of Argentine artists, cultural workers, filmmakers, and academics signed an open letter organized by journalist and filmmaker Ana Cacopardo and writer Rita Segato. In August, the National University of the Arts (UNA) held a festival of artistic interventions including performances by folklore musicians.
Contemporary artist Tomás Saraceno, born in Tucumán, another province in the north of Argentina, has been a vocal advocate of the Malón. His recent exhibition, Web(s) of Life at London’s Serpentine Galleries, featured a film installation about the long-standing relationship between Aerocene, an environmental artivism community started by Saraceno, and Indigenous groups in Jujuy. Saraceno and Maxi Laina have screened the film “Fly with Pacha into the Aerocene” in Buenos Aires and internationally.
The new legislation in Jujuy declares that anyone without land titles can be displaced for violating property rights. Even though Indigenous people have lived and farmed their lands for thousands of years, most never acquired legal documentation and could now face eviction. This reform also makes it easier for mega-mining companies to win land rights disputes and prohibits people from blocking highways in protest.
This summer, activists faced police brutality after blocking the roads to lithium mines in peaceful demonstrations in Jujuy. Those taking part in this year’s Malón de la Paz say they are determined not to give in until the constitutional reform backed by Governor Morales is revoked.
Artist Emilio Ramón Haro Galli lives in Tilcara, Jujuy. When the reform was announced, communities went to the nearby town of Purmamarca to protest. Several people, including a child, lost an eye from the rubber bullets used by the police, Galli recounted. The human rights violations that occurred against Indigenous activists and other citizens in Jujuy were also documented by Amnesty International.
When he painted his mural in Purmamarca in honor of the Malón, Galli included those injured due to police brutality. “I wanted to paint both the joy and also the struggle of these communities,” he told Hyperallergic.
In solidarity with the Malón, the Nacional Terry Museum in Tilcara organized an onsite art workshop in Purmamarca, near the highway where the brutal events occurred. Families made signs and painted Wiphala flags symbolizing Indigenous resistance. An emblem of the Indigenous people of the Andean region, the flag also stands for Mother Earth, with each color in the 49 squares representing evolution, ancestors, nature, the cosmic world, and other elements. In Buenos Aires, Malón representatives have organized various “wiphalazos” in Congress to gain visibility.
The two biggest Lithium mining companies in Argentina are the US-based Livent in Catamarca, and the Australian Allkem in Jujuy. According to Bloomberg, these two corporations, which plan to merge, create approximately $1.2 billion in revenues. Laxer mining rules and regulations attract these businesses to Argentina, and 14 others reportedly plan to come to the region. A 2023 investigation into lithium extraction in Argentina shows that these corporations leave a mere 3.5% of the gains in the country, keeping the rest of the profit.
Approximately 500,000 gallons of water are used to extract a ton of lithium, drying up rivers and contaminating the land. What used to be vibrant Indigenous farming communities in the province of Catamarca have become ghost towns since Livent established headquarters there.
Originally from the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a narrow mountain valley located in Jujuy and declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, Aurora Choque has sung her coplas since she was young. These folkloric improvised songs with rhyming verses are popular in Andean culture. In the summer, during Carnaval season, coplas can be heard all over the Andean region, a central aspect of festivities celebrating abundance.
At first, Choque, who is also in her 70s, performed her coplas every day in the Plaza Lavalle, a main square in Buenos Aires where Malón representatives camp out. But lately, she said growing discrimination and dismissal by non-Indigenous locals has slowed her pace. In August, an Indigenous couple from El Malón was mocked on live TV for speaking in Quechua. On a weekly basis, Choque said, people yell at them to “go back to Bolivia” — even though they are Argentine — and although representatives have engaged in hunger strikes, there hasn’t been any Supreme Court motion to overrule the constitutional reform.
“They don’t consider us, and there doesn’t seem to be a solution,” Choque said. “Some even seem to despise our traditions and customs.” These Andean communities carry the culture and legacy of their Incan ancestors, whose civilization expanded from Perú toward the South through a rich visual and artistic tradition.
“Based on our conception of the world and our cosmogony dating back 5,000 years and five suns, our art is collective and functional,” Alvarez Prado told Hyperallergic. “Our people’s art is also reflected in the Ancient Inca Civilization’s architecture, clothes, textiles, copla songs; it is reflected in the Wiphala flag and symbols such as pumas, jaguars, and serpent spirals. All of this is present in the Malón for Peace.”
Today, Indigenous representatives of the Malón continue to camp in the park across from Congress in Buenos Aires. They have limited access to public bathrooms and face police intimidation and discrimination, yet refuse to give up. “We are all fire, water, earth, and air,” Prado said. “Two vital elements, water, and the earth, are being taken from us, so we will continue rising to defend them.”
Journalist Carlos Puma Katrileo contributed reporting from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Argentine photographer and photojournalist Susi Maresca contributed images from Jujuy and Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 2019, she began following Indigenous communities as they struggled with issues related to water and the impacts of mega-mining in the north of Argentina.
Interviews with Indigenous representatives were conducted in Spanish and translated into English.