In profile: Andy Symington, PhD Student


Andy on the way to visit a community near a lithium plant in northwestern Argentina, March 2020. Credit: Andy Symington

In his career as a travel writer, Andy Symington has often visited the spectacular salt flats of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, memorably set in the arid, beautiful Andes highlands. He was always intrigued by the Indigenous communities that lived there and the complex interactions between mining and traditional culture, and is now exploring these interactions in depth with a specific focus on lithium extraction.

Andy is currently completing his PhD at UNSW, where he is investigating the factors influencing corporate engagement with human rights norms in the lithium extraction industry in South America. Companies in the region vary widely in their approaches to issues such as the right to a healthy environment and it is of interest to discover why some companies engage more than others.

As an essential component of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, lithium is a valuable mineral—in high demand for use in electric and hybrid vehicles. But Andy says that ensuring a sustainable approach to extraction is a challenge that must be met in order for technologies like electric vehicles to be truly ‘green’.

“There are complex interactions of mining governance with Indigenous, human rights and environmental law in the so-called ‘lithium triangle’ of South America,” says Andy. “Indigenous communities in the region are concerned about the impact of lithium extraction on their water supply and thus on their traditional culture and livelihoods”.

Through his research, Andy hopes to discover drivers at government, company and community level that lead to better corporate engagement with rights, and establish some guidelines for best practice in lithium extraction and the wider field of business and human rights.

“Business and human rights is a promising field because there are many different approaches to encouraging companies to take rights into account, ranging from government regulation to internal company capacitation, direct investor pressure or community activism,” says Andy.

“Hopefully my research, by revealing key success factors, will be of value to communities, companies and governments interacting around extractive projects in the future.”

Andy completed his Master of Human Rights Law and Policy at UNSW in his forties, and he says his entire experience at UNSW has been nothing but positive.

“Returning to university after 20 years was great—I became one of those ‘done-the-readings’, ‘asked-a-lot-of-questions’ mature-age students that had so annoyed me in my undergrad years,” he says.The ankle-breaking surface of the Salar de Atacama, where Chile’s major lithium projects are located, March 2020. Credit: Andy Symington

I was immensely impressed with the quality of the staff and teaching at the Faculty of Law during my Masters, and that was the major reason behind my decision to continue studying there. There are so many other projects you can immerse yourself in and I feel enormously supported by my supervisors as well as the Faculty and associated bodies—particularly the Australian Human Rights Institute.”

After his PhD, Andy is open-minded about next steps in his career.

“I enjoy research so I could see myself continuing with postdoc work, although I would be keen to end up in an international body or a non-governmental organisation involved in policy and developments on the ground,” says Andy.

“Business and human rights is an emerging field so hopefully some interesting new opportunities will open up.”


Top image: Evening light at the Salinas Grandes salt flats in Argentina, March 2020. Credit: Andy Symington

Share this