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Voz VII | The Salar de Atacama, Chile: draining the desert

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If humanity is to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, it is essential that we decarbonize our economies. This will depend upon the widespread rollout of technologies which are enormously metal- and mineral-intensive. But mining is not without its social and environmental impacts, nor is it free of responsibility for the climate emergency.

The following text is an extract from Chapter 7 of ‘The Heart of Our Earth: Community resistance to mining in Latin America’ by Tom Gatehouse, published by LAB today, entitled The law of holes: Mining and climate change. This chapter assesses to what extent mining may be part of the solution to climate change, looking at two metals which will be essential for the energy transition: copper, focusing on the Cordillera del Cóndor, Ecuador; and lithium, focusing on the Salar de Atacama in Chile.

You can order a copy of the book here and please join us for a glass of wine at the launch in London on March 30.

Voz brings our loyal subscribers a long-read article each quarter, conveying the experience and analysis of our partners: activists, journalists, artists, academics. We hope that their in-depth testimony and commentary will help broaden our understanding of Latin America, and through it, the world.


II. The Salar de Atacama, Chile: draining the desert 

It takes about an hour to drive from the tourist hub of San Pedro de Atacama to the community of Peine, out in the desert in the Antofagasta region of northern Chile.

The scenery is unworldly. NASA uses the Atacama Desert as a testing ground for robots designed to conduct research on Mars and it’s not hard to see why. It is the driest place on Earth outside the polar regions; parts of the desert are completely barren, devoid of vegetation or any other signs of life. Northern Chile is also home to 70 per cent of the global infrastructure for ground-based astronomy. The sky is almost always cloudless and there is very little light pollution, making conditions near perfect for stargazers (Johanson, 2021).

And yet, what is striking about the terrain around Peine is precisely that there is life, despite the arid conditions. Much of the landscape is covered with olive-green grasses and shrubs, irrigated by lagoons and underground water sources. On the horizon, mountains and volcanoes form an irregular grey-blue stripe; below them, an off-white band contrasts with the darker terrain of the desert. This is the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile and the third largest in the world after the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and Salinas Grandes in Argentina.

Peine, a small, dusty village home to around 300 people, is perched up on a hillside by the salar. A LAB journalist visited in 2018 to meet a group from the Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños (CPA), an umbrella organization representing 18 indigenous Atacameño communities in the surrounding region, including Peine. Its mission is to preserve their ancestral territory and culture, promoting their sustainable development via workshops and training, and conducting environmental monitoring and research.

Six people were waiting at the community centre, three men and three women. Two Wiphalas – the chequered rainbow banner representing the indigenous people of the Andes – stood planted in pots on the table.

It was Sergio Cubillos who did most of the talking. He was dressed casually: jeans, a T-shirt, a light beard of a few days darkening his face. Though by far the youngest member of the group, at the time of interview he was CPA president. After stepping down in early 2021, he ran for mayor of San Pedro de Atacama and then for deputy of the Antofagasta region, though in both cases without success.

‘Our aim is to preserve our territory and subsist as a community,’ he says. ‘We want sustainable development, with access to quality education and a healthcare system that meets our needs. We’re not against the country continuing to progress and develop, but we think there needs to be a change in the vision of development.’

The territory of the Atacameños has long been under pressure from the mining industry, particularly the copper mines Escondida – operated by the Anglo-Australian miner BHP – and Zaldívar, a joint venture between the Chilean company Antofagasta Minerals 1)Antofagasta is sometimes described as a British company, being registered in England and Wales and having an office in London. However, while it may raise its capital in the UK, the company and all of its mining operations are based in Chile, and it is controlled by the Luksic family, one of Chile’s wealthiest families. and Canada’s Barrick Gold. But in the last two decades, the Atacameños have watched in dismay as the salar has become one of the main global hubs for extraction of yet another commodity: lithium.

Beneath the Salar de Atacama lies an estimated one third of the entire global supply.

Lithium is an essential component of lithium-ion batteries, which store large quantities of energy relative to their size and weight. They will be a key means of energy storage as the world transitions away from fossil fuels; demand is expected to skyrocket in the next few years. However, with the damage that lithium mining is doing to the salar becoming increasingly obvious, the Atacameños are determined to put the brakes on any further expansion. 

The true cost of e-mobility 

Antofagasta is the very heart of the Chilean mining industry, providing many of the raw materials which have driven Chile’s great export booms.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries there was saltpetre – the original ‘white gold’ – which was widely used as a fertilizer and in gunpowder. Then came copper, which has long been Chile’s main export. Antofagasta is home to some of the biggest mines in the world, such as Chuquicamata, the 20th century’s most prolific copper mine (Brown, 2012, p. 132), as well as Escondida, currently the world’s largest copper-producing operation. Aside from these immense copper projects, there are also gold, iron, and nitrate mines.

Today, Chile’s copper industry alone accounts for more than half of Chilean exports (Santander Trade Markets, 2022) and around ten per cent of national GDP (Barría, 2021). But while the Chilean state has always treated Antofagasta as a cash cow, for the Atacameños it is their ancestral home. Traditionally, they were subsistence farmers, herding alpacas, and llamas, then, after the arrival of the Spanish, sheep, goats, and mules. They also grow crops, such as quinoa, maize, squash, and chillies (Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, n.d.).

Their coexistence with mining has always been uneasy and as the industry has expanded, and its impacts have become harder to ignore, Atacameño resistance has hardened. This has been informed by a growing sense of their identity as indigenous communities and a greater awareness of their rights.

‘The first time Escondida came, offering us a pittance, we didn’t know what an indigenous community was, because we were all just Chileans, so we made do with what they gave us,’ says Sara Plaza, one of the women at the meeting in Peine. ‘Later we began to understand what an indigenous community is, and we began to fight the mining company.’

They point to the destruction of the Salar de Punta Negra, further to the south, as a cautionary tale. For years, BHP had been pumping water from beneath the salt flat for use at Escondida. Though it permanently ceased this practice in 2017, the Atacameños argue that it was too late. Both Escondida and the Salar de Punta Negra are over 100 km from Peine, which, Cubillos says, is part of the reason BHP was able to get away with it for so long. But Peine is located on the edge of the Salar de Atacama and the impacts of mining there are much more immediate.

‘Water was extracted from the Salar de Punta Negra for more than 20 years … They’re no longer taking water, but the Salar has been destroyed,’ says Cubillos. ‘And this is exactly what we don’t want to happen to the Salar de Atacama.’

Sara Plaza on the plains below Peine on the ‘Lithium Triangle’ / © Grace Livingstone 2019

But it is in grave danger – and with the need to decarbonize the global economy becoming ever more urgent, the future of the salar is far from certain.

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Lithium-ion batteries are found in everything from laptops and mobile phones to electric scooters and e-cigarettes. But these technologies, though widespread, use only small quantities of the metal. What really threatens to send demand through the roof is the expanding market for electric vehicles (EVs), which are far more lithium intensive. The battery of a Tesla Model S contains about twelve kilos, for instance (Katwala, 2018).

Road vehicles in the UK account for about 19 per cent of national CO2 emissions, a figure which must be reduced if the target of reaching net zero by 2050 is to be met. Given that sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles are to be banned from 2030, mass uptake of EVs is a central part of the plan. Nor is the UK alone. The European Union has proposed a ban on new fossil fuel- powered vehicles from 2035 and various U.S. states are introducing similar legislation, including California and New York.

The issue is not only that EVs are metal-intensive. Our national energy networks, in their current form, are not built for widespread EV use. Existing power networks will have to be modernized, to build in the capacity to store and regulate the vast amounts of – hopefully renewable – energy required. This means more metals.

For the mining industry, this represents a major business opportunity. But for the communities who live near the Andean salares, and the scientists who study these unique ecosystems, the spiralling global demand for lithium is serious cause for concern.

Cristina Dorador is a biologist at the Universidad de Antofagasta and was one of the delegates elected to the constitutional assembly, the body which was responsible for drafting Chile’s new constitution.

‘In the Atacama Desert a range of different aquatic environments can be found, the remnants of lakes from millions of years ago,’ she wrote in an article for LatinAmericanScience.org. ‘Today, they’re home to enormous biodiversity, including endemic species of plants and animals, as well as microorganisms which are a living testimony to how life on this planet is possible even in extreme conditions’ (Dorador, 2014).

‘What will become of future generations?’

This arid, altiplano region, spreading south-east into Argentina and north-east into Bolivia, is sometimes called the ‘Lithium Triangle’; it is thought to hold around 75 per cent of global supply. Chile is by far the leading producer of the three, though Argentina is trying to catch up. Bolivia is thought to hold the biggest reserves of all, though for various political, economic, and technical reasons its nascent industry has yet to take off.

In all three countries, the lithium is contained not within rock, but brine: mineral-rich groundwater beneath salt flats. Companies sink wells, then pump the brine into vast pools on the surface and let the sun evaporate the water. What’s left – usually a combination of lithium, potassium, manganese, and other minerals – is filtered and left to evaporate once more. The whole process takes between 12 and 18 months, after which time the lithium carbonate can be extracted (Ahmad, 2020).

The companies have long claimed that the evaporation process is clean and has no impact on the wider ecosystem: the brine is fit neither for human consumption, nor for agriculture, so why does it matter if this water is lost to the atmosphere?

But things may not be so simple. The debate centres on the relationship between the brine underneath the salt flat and the freshwater systems at its perimeter.

Mariana Cervetto is a hydrogeologist who has worked with the Atacameños. ‘In the hydrological models that the mines present, they say that pumping brine will never, ever have an effect on the normal function of the other aquifer,’ she says. ‘That no matter how much brine they pump, they won’t affect these lakes. And in my objective, technical opinion, I wouldn’t be so sure.’

Thea Riofrancos, a political scientist based at Providence College and a specialist on extractive industries in Latin America, likens it to an arm-wrestling match (Riofrancos, 2019). On one side is the brine, which is much denser than freshwater due to its high mineral content. On the other is the freshwater, which comes from snowmelt up in the Andes and which gravity drags down towards the centre of the salar.

Under normal circumstances, these two opposing forces hold each other in check, the freshwater sitting on top of the brine. But when the brine is removed, there is nothing to stop the freshwater from flowing down into the salt flat – draining the surrounding lagoons and wetlands and leaving the indigenous communities around the edge of the salar with insufficient water for domestic and agricultural use.

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests this is happening, backed up by anecdotal evidence from the communities.

‘We have some grasslands with a well, and it really hurts me, because it used to be a big grassy plain with a well full of water and now it’s dry, it’s dry!’ says Sara Plaza, with tears in her eyes. ‘I went there recently and it hurts, because we’ve been fighting really hard, but now this grassland has all dried up, there’s very little water.’

‘It’s terrible for us elders because we’ve been fighting for so long, but now our wetland is dry and what will happen afterwards? Will there be a future? What will become of future generations?’

Ultimately, how much brine lies beneath the salt flat remains unknown, as does the precise nature of the relationship between the two water systems. Studies still haven’t been done in enough detail and over enough time to draw any firm conclusions about the long-term effects of lithium mining on the salar.

Area of remaining wetland on plains below Peine / © Grace Livingstone 2019

‘It’s very difficult to know because here in Chile we don’t have basic information,’ says Cervetto. ‘The information is produced by the same companies when they have to present their environmental impact studies. It’s the same company who presents the information, the same company who decides what kind of monitoring they’ll do and who defines the loss.’

In other words, it’s yet another example of how, all too often, mining companies are allowed to regulate themselves, even when operating in areas of great ecological sensitivity.

‘Our position is that no companies should be allowed to set up within our territory while the necessary studies still haven’t been done on the health of the salar,’ says Sergio Cubillos. ‘But we know that this could go on for much longer. People say the lithium boom could go on for forty or fifty years. We will be keeping a close eye on the situation.’


All references, related articles, and general chapter information can be found on the book website here.

Order a copy of The Heart of Our Earth here and please join us for a glass of wine at the book’s launch on 30 March in central London.

The Heart of Our Earth Book Launch

References

References
1 Antofagasta is sometimes described as a British company, being registered in England and Wales and having an office in London. However, while it may raise its capital in the UK, the company and all of its mining operations are based in Chile, and it is controlled by the Luksic family, one of Chile’s wealthiest families.