Flower or Power? Campaigners Fear Lithium Mine Could Kill Rare Plant

A Tiehm's buckwheat plant starts to bud in its native habitat in the Silver Peak Range in Esmeralda County, Nevada beside Rhyolite Ridge, the site of a proposed lithium mine. Robyn Beck / AFP
A Tiehm's buckwheat plant starts to bud in its native habitat in the Silver Peak Range in Esmeralda County, Nevada beside Rhyolite Ridge, the site of a proposed lithium mine. Robyn Beck / AFP
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Flower or Power? Campaigners Fear Lithium Mine Could Kill Rare Plant

A Tiehm's buckwheat plant starts to bud in its native habitat in the Silver Peak Range in Esmeralda County, Nevada beside Rhyolite Ridge, the site of a proposed lithium mine. Robyn Beck / AFP
A Tiehm's buckwheat plant starts to bud in its native habitat in the Silver Peak Range in Esmeralda County, Nevada beside Rhyolite Ridge, the site of a proposed lithium mine. Robyn Beck / AFP

Delicate pink buds sway in the desert breeze, pregnant with yellow pompoms whose explosion will carpet the dusty corner of Nevada that is the only place on Earth where they exist.
Under their roots lie vast reserves of lithium, vital for the rechargeable electric car batteries that will reduce planet-heating pollution, AFP said.
But campaigners fear the extraction of the precious metal could destroy the flower's tiny habitat.
"This mine is going to cause extinction," says Patrick Donnelly, an environmentalist who works at the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-governmental organization.
"They somehow claim that they're not harming the (plant). But can you imagine if someone built an open-pit mine 200 feet from your house? Wouldn't that affect your life profoundly?"
The plant in question is Tiehm's buckwheat.
There are only around 20,000 known specimens, growing in a few very specific places on a total surface area equivalent to around five soccer fields.
In 2022, the wildflower was classified as endangered by US federal authorities, with mining cited as a major threat to its survival.
The plant and the lithium reserve on which it grows embody one of the key challenges and contradictions of the global climate struggle: how much damage can we inflict on the natural world as we seek to halt or reverse the problems we have already created?
- 'Coexist' -
Bernard Rowe, boss of Australian miner Ioneer, which holds the mineral rights to the area, says the lithium produced at Rhyolite Ridge "will be sufficient to provide batteries for about 370,000 vehicles" a year.
"We'll do that year-on-year for 26 years," he said.
Those nearly 10 million vehicles will go a long way towards meeting the goal President Joe Biden has set of cutting down the nation's fleet of gas-guzzlers as a way to slash US production of planet-warming pollutants.
So-called zero-emission cars make up around 7.5 percent of new vehicle sales in the United States today -- more than double the percentage just a few years earlier.
In California, the figure is more than 20 percent.
And while expansion in the sector has slowed, the category remains the fastest-growing, according to Kelley Blue Book.
And it's not only in the United States: Global demand for lithium will increase five to seven times by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.
The difficulty for US manufacturers is that much of the world's lithium supply is dominated by strategic rival China, as well as Australia and Chile.
"The United States has very, very little domestic production," said Rowe.
"So it's important to develop a domestic supply chain to allow for that energy transition, and Rhyolite Ridge will be an integral part of that."
Ioneer's plans show that over the years the mine is in operation -- it is projected to start producing lithium in late 2027 -- around a fifth of the plant's habitat will be directly affected.
But the company, which has spent $2.5 million researching the plant, says mining will not affect its survival; it is already growing well in greenhouses and biologists think it can be replanted.
"We're very confident that the mine and Tiehm's buckwheat can coexist," Rowe said.
- 'Greenwashing' -
Donnelly counters that Ioneer is "basically greenwashing extinction."
"They're saying. 'We're going to save this plant,' when actually they are going to send it to its doom," he said.
Under the company's plans, the strip mine will use hundreds of trucks, which Donnelly says will raise clouds of dust that will affect photosynthesis and harm the insects that pollinate the plants.
Ioneer says it has already planned mitigation methods, like dust curtains, and keeping the roads wet.
Still, Donnelly says, why not just move the mine? But Rowe counters that it's not as simple as just digging somewhere else.
Ioneer has invested $170 million since 2016 to demonstrate the feasibility of this site, which it believes is one of the best around.
"Many of these other deposits haven't had that amount of work, so they're not viable alternatives to a project like this," he said.
The US Department of Energy has offered Ioneer a $700 million loan for the project, if the Bureau of Land Management signs off on an operating permit.
Donnelly insists the issue is not just the future of one obscure wildflower, but rather just one example of large-scale biodiversity loss that is threatening millions of plants and animals.
"If we solve the climate crisis, but we drive everything extinct while we do it, we're still going to lose our world," he said.



What is China's Panda Diplomacy and How Does it Work?

Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)
Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)
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What is China's Panda Diplomacy and How Does it Work?

Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)
Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)

During a visit to Australia this week, Chinese Premier Li Qiang made a classic goodwill gesture that boded well for relations between the two countries: he offered to send pandas.
The offer comes as ties between Australia and its largest trading partner improve after a diplomatic dispute that led to China imposing a raft of restrictions on Australian agricultural and mineral exports in 2020.
Native to China, pandas have through the years become "envoys of friendship", earning China's outreach to countries it gifts the animals to the name of panda diplomacy, Reuters said.
They have also been used to show Chinese anger.
So what is panda diplomacy and how does it work?
WHEN DID PANDA DIPLOMACY START?
Since its founding in 1949, the People's Republic of China has used panda diplomacy to boost its international image, either by gifting or lending panda to foreign zoos as goodwill animal ambassadors.
Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1957 gifted a panda, Ping Ping, to the former Soviet Union to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution that ushered in the Soviet regime.
To further cement ties with its socialist allies, China dispatched another panda to the Soviet Union in 1959 and five more to North Korea between 1965 and 1980.
In 1972, Beijing gifted two pandas, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, to the United States after then President Richard Nixon's historic visit, in a sign of normalized China-US relations and marking a pivotal moment for China's foreign policy.
Since then, other countries including Japan, France, Britain and Spain have also been given panda.
WHAT'S THE PANDA DIPLOMACY POLICY?
Since 1984, China stopped gifting pandas due to their dwindling numbers and began loaning them to overseas zoos instead, often in pairs for 10 years, with an annual fee of up to about $1 million.
While keeping pandas can be costly for zoos, they are seen as drawcards for visitors and help generate income.
The pandas typically return home to southwest China after the loan agreement ends. Panda cubs born overseas are no exception, and would be sent home between the age of two and four to join a Chinese breeding program.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
China has a history of using pandas to reward its trading partners. A 2013 Oxford University study said the timing of China's lease of pandas to Canada, France and Australia "coincided with" uranium deals and contracts with these countries.
The panda agreements with other countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, also coincided with the signing of free-trade agreements.
Sometimes, pandas are also used to express China's displeasure with a nation.
In 2010, China recalled two US-born pandas, Tai Shan and Mei Lan, after Beijing warned Washington against a scheduled meeting between then-President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, which Beijing views as a dangerous separatist.
In a recent downturn in bilateral ties, Ya Ya, on loan to the US for 20 years, was returned in April 2023.
Concerns over her health had also fanned nationalist sentiment on China's social media, with animal advocates accusing the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee of providing inadequate care to the animal.
In November last year, three other pandas left, leaving only four giant pandas on US soil.
That month, Chinese President Xi Jinping then hinted that he was open to sending more pandas to the US after meeting with President Joe Biden in California, a gesture seen as Chinese willingness to improve ties.
ARE PANDAS STILL ENDANGERED?
China's domestic conservation programs have seen the status of pandas improve from endangered to vulnerable.
The population of giant pandas in the wild has grown from around 1,100 in the 1980s to 1,900 in 2023.
There are currently 728 pandas in zoos and breeding centers around the world.