The Atacama salt flat of northern Chile is home to the indigenous Lickanantay, who consider water and brine to be sacred and inextricable parts of their territory. The salty brine below the surface of the salt flat is an ancient fossil water, one which also sustains the life of microorganisms whose role in the broader ecosystem is still not fully understood. The Lickanantay have lived with, and suffered the consequences of, copper and lithium mining for many decades. As demand for lithium has rapidly increased in recent years, so have the pressures on the Atacama, its water table, biodiversity and nearby communities.
Two companies, SQM and Albemarle, make up all of Chile’s lithium production. In recent years—due principally to rising demand for electric vehicle batteries—Albemarle and SQM have been expanding their operations, alongside the simultaneous fanning out of lithium exploration across the smaller salt flats and salt lakes of northern Chile.
Two Canadian companies, LiCo Energy Metals and Wealth Minerals, have also tried to establish new operations in the northern part of the Atacama salt flat. But resistance to both companies’ ambitions has been clear. In February of 2019, LiCo Energy Metals announced that they would abandon their Purickuta project. Meanwhile, members of local communities (Coyo, Toconao and Cucuter) have brought a case to the Appellate Court of Antofagasta against Wealth Minerals’s project.
“The project opposition from the local indigenous community is both immense and widespread and the Company does not see any way in which this project or property can be realistically explored or developed in the future by any corporate entity.”
— Statement from LiCo Energy Metals in announcing the abandonment of their proposed Purickuta project.
Conflicts between local indigenous communities and SQM go back at least until 2007. The Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños (CPA), an assembly of elected representatives from the 18 Lickantay communities and an official indigenous governance body, have filed several lawsuits against SQM for issues ranging from unauthorized water withdrawals to the lack of FPIC for the company’s expansion plans.
Meanwhile, according to a government-commissioned study, the Atacama water table is losing an estimated 1,750-1,950 liters per second, due in significant part to the extraction of brine from SQM and Albemarle’s lithium operations.
Above: The Atacama in northern Chile is the driest desert in the world, and may be the oldest. It also holds 40% of the world’s lithium – an essential ingredient in the rechargeable batteries used in green technology. Indigenous leaders and scientists say Chile’s plans to feed a global green energy boom with Atacama lithium will kill the desert. As violent protests rock the country, they are fighting for the mining to stop.
Above: Satellite imagery timelapse of the Salar de Atacama from 1984 to 2018
Dramatic growth of SQM and Albemarle’s operations can be observed from the mid-1990’s onward
For More Information
- Report: Impacto Socioambiental De La Extracción De Litio En Las Cuencas De Los Salares Altoandinos Del Cono Sur by OCMAL (2018)
- Website: Observatorio Plurinacional de Salares Andinos
- Website: Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños
- Twitter Feed: @CP_Atacamenos
Banner Photo: Roadblock by local communities and residents of San Pedro de Atacama in protest of Corfo’s agreement with SQM (February, 2018). Source: Ramón Morales Balcázar, Observatorio Plurinacional de Salares Andinos