For more than half a century, lithium was popularly known as a drug for psychiatric treatments. But it was in the last decade that this light metal began to be associated with rechargeable batteries. Chile is one of the largest exporters of lithium in the world. From here comes a key ingredient in the building of electric cars that will probably never be driven through the streets of this South American country.
This is the first chapter of a series of reports on the lithium triangle located between Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile.
The tree is huge. It is difficult to guess its size because it stands alone. There is no trace of vegetation until you lose your sight in the ochre hued landscape. It is the advantage that solitude has: it does not allow for comparisons. The unleashed wind, somewhat violent, causes a murmur in its leafy branches, from which small yellow fluffy buttons hang.
Cristina Dorador, an academic at the University of Antofagasta and a doctor in microbiology, gets out of her truck and heads straight to the tree like someone who is meeting an old friend. She wears a hat, sunglasses, and the clothes of someone who knows how to inhabit the desert.
—I think it’s a carob tree— says Cristina Dorador as she checks the leaves. She then points towards the vestiges of what was once a village.
— This was a saltpeter refinery. Deceived people came up here and had to work all day under the sun— she adds, frowning as the light shines directly onto her face.
This desert, the planet’s driest and most radiating, spans 105,000 square kilometers (40.540.73mi²),, almost twice the surface of Croatia, A desert that has inspired poets like Gabriela Mistral. Or a desert where NASA creates an annual camp to simulate life on Mars. Or where movies like Motorcycle Diaries, the Che Guevara biopic, were filmed. Or where ALMA, the world’s largest astronomical project, is located. Tourists, adventurers, businessmen, scientists, and mining transnationals often arrive— or used to arrive, before the pandemic— to this corner of Chile, between the Andes and the Costa mountain range.
When the Covid-19 quarantine began in April 2020, tourists disappeared but the mining continued to function. In those months of empty hotels the great copper mining industry increased its production. And while the world began to shut down, Chile, the country with the largest copper reserve in the world, achieved profits of US $3,990 million, 38% more than in the same period of 2019.
Cristina Dorador says that this region’s relationship with mining is not new. When speaking with people from the area, with parents and grandparents, almost all reveal to have had some relationship with some type of extractivism. Dorador also says that the relationship with mining has had consequences; although it may seem otherwise, the economic reserves of the desert are being depleted.
— Although the saltpeter did not deplete— Dorador told me with scientific precision— it followed these replacement logics. Before it was guano, then sodium nitrate, saltpeter; then copper, and now lithium. Now they talk of green hydrogen and, in the end, it is all the same. Everything is regulated with respect to what the Northern Hemisphere wants.
Cristina Dorador was born in Antofagasta, a city located between the desert and the Pacific Ocean, about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from Santiago. She emigrated to study and returned to Antofagasta to practice as a microbiologist in a territory that keeps her capacity for wonder alive. She is amazed by the colors of the landscape, as someone who sees a painting for the first time. With the same enthusiasm, she describes the contrasts between the hills, the clouds, the sound of the wind, the solitary tree, and the microorganisms that she studies. It is in her daily practice as a scientist and researcher that she has seen the consequences of extractivism in Chile, as she ensures that these practices do not involve the conservation and care of the environment. Mining companies carry out administrative or bureaucratic procedures for megaprojects, as is currently the case with lithium.
—The salt flats are very fragile systems— Dorador tells me, seated in a room at the University of Antofagasta— They are sites of high biodiversity. There is a reason why many are protected in nature reserves or even in national parks, but there is also the paradox that they are seen as deposits. They are highly complex ecosystems, and they should be viewed in that way.
The microbiologist explains that Chile bears the marks of mining for copper, and that this model has determined a way of doing things in which entire hills have been destroyed, converted into minerals and then exported.
In the case of lithium— says Cristina Dorador— an ecosystem is absolutely transformed.
Both the computer where I’m writing and the smartphones with which we communicate work thanks to lithium-ion batteries. But the advent of the electric car has considerably increased its demand by the markets of the richest countries in Europe and Asia. Headlines are often quick to claim that electric cars are “vital to fighting climate change”. The same day that Tesla announced that its shares had reached an all-time high, another article written in the same news website, assured readers that they could increase their friendliness to the planet by purchasing a four-wheel car that does not use gasoline.
On September 23, 2020, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera delivered a speech to the 75th General Assembly of the UN, in which he highlighted that “the abundance of copper and lithium gives us great potential in everything that refers to electromobility ”. However, this country with a little more than 18 million inhabitants, with a minimum wage of 326,000 pesos (about US $400 per month), that only exports raw minerals since it does not produce the batteries itself, does not foresee the arrival or mass adoption of electromobility.
—Electromobility is not going to come here— Dorador warns in a serious fashion— with the great social problems that we have as a country and the great inequality that exists.
She says that we must resign ourselves to the fact that we are a poor country. She also says that most people have low wages and will not have access to an electric car. Electromobility will not fulfill society’s objective to stop climate change – we must first change our lifestyles and ways of consuming.
The stain of the dictatorship
It is 4pm on the first Tuesday in December in the Ayllu de Solcor, a community located in San Pedro de Atacama. Sonia Ramos leaves her house surrounded by dogs that follow her as they beat their tails and accompany us to the small plot of land that she has on the other side of the road. If there is something that worries this Atacama woman — 69 years old, who speaks slowly and with soft gestures — it is the salt flats.
—What the mining company is saying is not correct— says Sonia Ramos— For us, from our worldview, the parina (Andean flamingo) signifies water. When parinas emigrate it is because there is a lack of water in a place where there was usually plenty of it.
Sonia Ramos says that the absence of these pink birds with thin and long legs that inhabit the Chilean highlands is an indicator that the waters are rapidly diminishing, and it is for this reason that for years she hasn’t stopped working to protect the salt flat. Several hydrologists around the world have told her that there is a connection between the salt flats and the alarming state they are in. But we have a State – she says- which is not going to help us legally.
It was the Corporation for the Promotion of Production (Corfo), the organ of the Chilean State in charge of promoting the national production activity, which handed over strategic control of the Salar de Atacama to the mining companies. In the early 1980s, Julio Ponce Lerou, son-in-law of the then dictator Augusto Pinochet, began to formulate a contract that a decade later would allow him to have control of this 2,800 kilometres (1739 miles) lithium deposit, the largest in the world. The State resigned its role of oversight and regulation, allowing Ponce Lerou to enrich himself through mining. But this flight of capital had another edge: SQM Salar, the company created by Ponce Lerou to exploit lithium, starred in one of the biggest corruption scandals in Chile, through the illegal financing of candidates and political parties that came to light at the end of 2014.
In addition to SQM, lithium in Chile is extracted by transnational companies such as the US Albemarle Corporation. Sonia Ramos believes that extractivism is the reason that the water levels are going down, since it requires large amounts of water to operate in an arid region where drought is a constant threat. This defender of the desert, as she likes to call herself, believes that her ancestors managed to take advantage of the desert’s resources without making the impact that large-scale mining does.
—I hope that before I leave this world I can show that it is possible to survive in the desert with a healthy economy.
—Some say that the salt flat is already lost. Do you believe it?
—No. No. It is a promise that will not be lost, says a confident Sonia Ramos
As soon as she finishes responding, a gust of wind imposes silence. The trees shake for a few seconds.
—They applauded, do you realize? – she says in a dutiful tone – those who applauded are the ancestors.
The salt flat to which Sonia Ramos dedicates herself is the cradle of the Licanantay, an indigenous people who inhabit what is currently known as the Atacama desert, following the name that the Spanish gave to this region. Cunza was their main language, one that prevailed until the end of the seventeenth century. Forced Spanish settlers had to employ interpreters when they visited the ayllus, communities which originated as the family organizations of Andean indigenous peoples. San Pedro, Toconao, Soncor, Socaire, and Peine are some of the villages and small oases dotted around the great Salar de Atacama.
Cristina Dorador shares the concerns of Sonia Ramos. The scientist is concerned that the extraction of the brine will be carried out without prior investigation of the salt flats and that the mining companies will make decisions without sufficient evidence. Environmental impact studies are another controversial issue, since in many cases there are conflicts of interest between the consulting firms that make these reports and the mining companies, who do not make all the information publicly available.
—Chilean legislation does not offer capabilities with which to study extreme environments such as salt flats from an environmental point of view— says Dorador
Chile’s peculiar geography stretches 4,200 kilometers (2609 miles) long. While in Europe you can travel 8 countries in 2,000 kilometers (1240 miles), in this Latin American country you would barely cover half of the territory. The great distances, as well as its way of governing, have rendered it the most centralised country in Latin America, receiving constant calls from international organizations such as The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, to adopt a regional development perspective and apply decentralization policies.
Those who inhabit these territories adopt with resignation the decisions that are made in Santiago, Chile’s capital, some 22 hours away when traveling by car from San Pedro de Atacama. The local community, indigenous peoples or leaders of territories, do not take part in neither a binding nor concrete way the decision making process which governs their environment.
—Civic participation is merely a smoke screen— Dorador tells me
Chile had the opportunity to reverse these policies. The Escazú Agreement, the first major environmental treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean, was signed in 2018 by 22 countries. Promoted by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the agreement was boosted by Costa Rica and Chile, after years of negotiations. But in an unexpected turn, one that the environmental communities and organizations failed to understand, Sebastián Piñera’s government refused to sign it.
The proposed agreement has important objectives: to guarantee the right of all people to have access to information in a timely and adequate manner; to participate in a meaningful way in the decisions that affect their lives and their environment; and to access justice when these rights have been violated. In other words, if in the last three decades there had been an agreement in place with the characteristics of the Escazú, perhaps the Canadian mining company Kinross would not have completely dried up the 70 hectares that comprised the wetlands of the Lucustre Complex Laguna del Negro Francisco and Laguna Santa Rosa. Or maybe the Salares Norte gold and silver project of the South African mining company Gold Fields wouldn’t have been authorized; authorization that involved the relocation of a colony of 25 chinchillas, a critically endangered species, and in whose transportation two died and another was injured. Or perhaps, the Collahuasi mining company had not dried up the Salar de Michincha, nor La Escondida the Salar de Punta Negra. Or even, the Salar de Coposa would not have been fitted with pipes underneath, forcing the watering of the wetlands – the Altiplanic Lagoons – with a hose. It is likely that, between the years 2000 and 2005, the Cerro Colorado mining company would not have caused the drought of bofedales, a type of Andean wetland, and springs due to water extraction. If Chile had signed Escazú, perhaps it would prevent the Salar de Atacama from drying up completely as a result of lithium extraction, causing the slow death of the ecosystems and biodiversity that inhabit it.
All of lithium’s colors
The press cheered when the export of lithium was positioned as one of the most important for the Chilean economy. A few years later, as mining practices caused demonstrable and irreversible damage to ecosystems, water sources, the environment, and, therefore, to communities also, some news outlets denounced the role of extractivist practices. “War for water” is one of the headlines that is most repeated in discussions about the socio-environmental conflicts in Chile’s northern area. This is imagery that supposes two sides. Two options: good versus evil. But in this place of extreme conditions, nuances prevail. Lithium is not just “white gold.” The lightest of metals also has its impurities.
Jorge Muñoz Coka says that the situation is difficult. He says that, to understand it, you have to be here. Muñoz Coka is president of the Atacameño community of Solcor, and arrived in San Pedro 10 years ago. Although his family is originally from this village, and always maintained the bond, he grew up in the city.
It is nine in the morning in San Pedro, but the sun bites as if it were noon. Jorge Muñoz Coka — slim, with tanned skin and jet-black hair to below his shoulders — stands in front of a traditional Atacameño house, built with adobe, stone, straw, chañar wood, and carob. The walls have an earthy color, the door is calypso like heaven.
—When I arrived in San Pedro I learned with my hands. To put my hands in the ground, to build in clay, in adobe. I also learned agriculture— he says distracted by a starving cat that he has forgotten to feed.
Jorge Muñoz Coka is also a member of the Observatorio Plurinacional de Salares Andinos OPSAL (the Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats, in Spanish), a diverse space where professionals and activists participate to promote the defense of the salt flats and wetlands of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. This decade of discoveries – he tells me – has been very important in his life because it has allowed him to return to his roots.
In his role as a member of the Irrigators’ Association, he has been able to demystify the so-called “War for water”. However, he recognizes that the mining companies have a responsibility: by intervening in the Salar de Atacama through the extraction of almost 2,000 liters per second, they alter the balance of the basin. The region has been experiencing a severe drought and there are still people who do not have access to drinkable water.
Chile is the only country on the planet that has, through law, privatized water. The current Constitution treats this resource as a private good; this has caused a water crisis that forces the country to face the climatic emergency in conditions of greater vulnerability. But the only exception of such privatization is here: all members of the Irrigators’ Association are the owners of the water. Although only the owners of properties and parcels have the right to vote, it’s all together that they decide how to administer the water.
—It has been quite beneficial because it is a collective voice and it has been able to protect the water—, Jorge says. He explains that this organization is one of the most distinctive features of the atacameño culture in the area because traditions are mixed there, such as the cleaning the canals; some rituals, and they can observe the benefits of irrigation for growing corn.
—If agriculture did not exist here, we would be quite lost—, says Jorge Muñoz Coka.
The president of the Solcor community believes that an important breaking point was the creation of 1993’s Indigenous Law. According to Muñoz Coka and Sonia Ramos, the regulations, established during Chile’s transition to democracy, left out many cultural aspects. Some benefits were guaranteed, but traditions, worldviews, organization, and political representativeness were ignored. Because of the law, they are able to say that they are indigenous on paper, Muñoz Coka adds. He sums it up in an anecdote:
—A neighbor told me that when the law was created my grandmother told him: hey, now we are indigenous! Before the law, we were all Atacameños, but from there on in, a new identity was created.
The Chilean Magna Carta, drawn up under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, does not recognize the country’s indigenous peoples. The dictator imposed the idea that the country’s population had only an homogeneous identity. The 1993 law was an attempt to partially remedy that situation. On October 25, 2020, Chile approved with almost 80% of vote the proposal to write a new Constitution, which will be drawn up by a body elected through the popular vote and which will have reserved seats for indigenous peoples.
—The State of Chile is very smart in dividing people—Sonia Ramos tells me later— The worldview that I use ancestrally is that of ‘the people’. The vision that exists at the moment is of community. But community means division, it means a space within a territory and what has happened is that some people began to see for their territory, but not for their people. The State of Chile was very skillful in that regard because it managed to divide us.
Sonia Ramos’s tone does not change at any moment. She is sweet, even when she describes sad or painful memories, such as when some communities have been stranded, devoid of resources, while small towns have gained power after negotiating with mining companies in exchange for large sums of money.
Sonia Ramos toured this land hand in hand with her grandmother. In her childhood memories the history of her town, passed down through generations, slips. When they ate parina eggs they had the peace of mind that this would not affect the balance in the salt flats. They had the peace of mind that the pink bird would later put another in its place.
—That is the knowledge that our ancestors used and that now comes into dispute when they only speak from the Western perspective, without knowing the territory— she says.
Ingrid Garcés is used to being the exception. She studied Chemical Civil Engineering at the University of Antofagasta at a time when it was not common for women to enter the classroom, much less to study engineering. Of the four women that entered, she was the only one to finish the program on time. She has been working as an academic in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Mineral Processes for over 40 years, when her youth and character also attracted attention. She is the only one in her area who has taken such a close interest in the salt flats, the lithium industry, and placed a critical eye on mining. Due to this commitment, she decided to join OPSAL. The other members of the organization keep her informed from San Pedro, about a 5-hour drive from Antofagasta, even when Ingrid Garcés refuses to use WhatsApp.
—The people of San Pedro are having a very bad time. Since they are a bit isolated from the rest of the people, it is believed that they are fine, but it is not like that— says Ingrid Garcés, as she describes the situation during the Covid-19 pandemic— That is the reality. They are experiencing a great drought. I think that there is no real awareness here of the issue of water resources and how it is greatly affecting these communities.
Garcés makes it clear that this drought is due to the fact that large volumes of water have been extracted by companies who ignore the 18 communities surrounding the Salar de Atacama. Garcés has an energetic voice and says direct phrases without losing a kind gesture. She also insists that sustainability should not involve abandoning people.
—We have only extracted the mineralogical resource, but what remains in the same soil and what the communities share is nothing. Nothing remains!— she says in horror.
It was on a trip to Arica that Ingrid began to look at the desert in a different way. Although she was born in the north of Chile, it was during that journey, where she accompanied a colleague who was taking samples for an investigation, when she began to be enchanted with these evaporite deposits that until that date, 1984, did not have many studies.
—I was able to see that the salt flats are a living ecosystem. Not only by looking at the natural resource but they also have resources: on the one hand, the water, which is what gives it life; on the other, the biodiversity that is around them; and, of course, they provide a service to people.
Lithium mining has imposed great many impacts upon the Salar de Atacama, especially along its eastern edge, the most fragile area of the salt flat. Ingrid Garcés says that this is where the wetlands are, whose biodiversity relies on fresh water and not on saline water. As a result of pumping, the wetlands are polluted and, as freshwater decreases, they dry up. As in a domino effect, the ecosystem’s chain of life is broken and the fauna, flora, and populations decrease.
It is a cloudy afternoon in Antofagasta. Far away, we can see the port from where tons of lithium will be exported. Norway has just announced that it is the first country in the world in which 50% of all cars sold in a year were electric. Ingrid Garcés does not drive. Nor does she imagine an electric car driving through her city.
English version edited by Paloma Opazo.
*This report was made possible with support from the Bertha Foundation.
LATE es una red sin fines de lucro de periodistas que cuentan el mundo en español