After solar radiation, the yellowish liquid contains lithium. © Marion Esnault/Reporterre
Animals, plants, water… In Chile, life is disappearing as a result of lithium mining. One man, from an indigenous people, has made this his fight. The country intends to increase the rate of production of this “white gold”.
Lithium, the white gold of the “green” economy? – Lithium is the star of the energy transition. This metal is essential for the construction of electric vehicle batteries, but its resources are far from infinite, as the first part of our investigation showed. The environmental consequences of its extraction are still little studied (read the second part). And on the ground, in Chile, the impact is heavy. A report produced in partnership with the RTS radio programme “Prise de Terre”.
Salar d'Atacama (Chile), report
They are almost limitless. Stretches of white and ochre earth as far as the eye can see. This is not sand, but salt. And underneath, the coveted metal for electric cars is hidden: lithium. Here we are in the heart of the Atacama Salar, the driest Chilean salt desert in the world, at an altitude of over 2,500 metres, where lithium production is in full swing.
Christian Espindola, a farmer, has made this massive extractivism his fight. Located on the edge of this salt desert, his indigenous village, Lickanantay de Toconao, is suffering from this activity. “The Atacama salt flat is a sacred place that belongs to the ancestral history of my people. There are animals, water, microorganisms, but mines like the lithium are destroying this unique life. He hopes only one thing: “That the mines leave and let my people live in peace, so that our culture will continue.”
A wish that is not about to be fulfilled. Chile is part of the “White Gold Triangle” – along with Argentina and Bolivia – which alone accounts for 60% of the world’s lithium resources (20% for Chile). The Chilean mining company Soquimich (SQM), owned since the Pinochet dictatorship by Julio Ponce Lerou, nephew of the former Chilean general, plans to triple its lithium production by 2030 to 180,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) per year. This is despite the fact that it already boasts of being the world’s largest producer of lithium.
Chile has based its neoliberal economy on the sale of natural resources,” explains Cristina Dorador, a Chilean scientist who was elected last May to the Constituent Assembly, which has the task of writing a new constitution after Chile’s October 2019 social revolution. The Atacama Salar is a territory that contains a lot of minerals, and therefore mining deposits. The region was once flooded with lakes, which dried up and then evaporated, forming basins, known as “salars”.
Lithium has been mined here since the 1980s. “Today, Chile is under international pressure as part of the “White Gold Triangle”. The country has even been compared to Saudi Arabia or the ‘Silicon Valley of lithium’,” Barbara Jerez, a doctor of political ecology and Latin American sciences at the University of Valparaíso, tells Reporterre. The economic powers have always named this territory after the minerals extracted. In this way, the local population is told that this is a place where the most important thing is minerals, and everything else takes a back seat.
As a result, the numerous mines installed near towns and villages “have led to major health problems and societal changes”, says Cristina Dorador, pointing to problems of access to water, the major issue of lithium extraction in the Atacama Salar.
Water, the major issue
This is in the middle of the desert, where there is very little water. The region has one of the highest water stresses, being the driest desert in the world. “Two elements are essential for mining: energy and water,” explains Cristina Dorador. To understand how this works, we headed for the Soquimich (SQM)  deposits, where the mine operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. After a two-hour drive in a red 4×4, we arrive at a strip of white salty land at the foot of huge lithium evaporation pool
In these evaporation ponds is placed the brine, a transparent liquid extracted from their wells and composed of 70% water and 30% salt. Under the influence of solar radiation, water evaporates and allows salts to precipitate at the bottom of swimming pools, explains Alejandro Bucher, head of sustainable development at SQM. We recover them to produce potassium.”
The liquid is moved from swimming pool to swimming pool, and after a long sunbath for twelve to eighteen months, we finally obtain the much coveted mineral, in the form of lithium chloride. “We send it to Antofagasta, 270 kilometers from here, where the lithium carbonate and hydroxide factories are. It reacts with another material, sodium chloride, imported by ship from other countries. Then, the processed product is exported to our customers, mainly to Asia, ”explains Alejandro Bucher.
The nearly 5-kilometre-long pools, the largest of which covers 280,000 m2 , therefore require very large quantities of water. The company SQM has no problem with this: “The water extracted from the salar is seven to ten times saltier than sea water, so it is not used for domestic or agricultural purposes,” explains Alejandro Bucher. What we need to do is to find a way of not polluting the water outside the salar. For this, we have a robust monitoring system.
L’or blanc en quête de stratégie «verte»
In 2020, the Chilean environmental court obliged SQM to set up a permanent online monitoring system, says Domingo Lara, a biologist from the University of Antofagasta who is one of the few people who have worked on the hydrological balance of the Atacama Salt Flat. “When we studied the data, we realised that there had been many errors, not only methodological, but also technical. And some information is missing: the Puilar lagoon, for example, which is located next to the freshwater extraction wells, is not monitored – because SQM does not only extract brine, but also freshwater.”
Moreover, the salar ecosystem has been very little studied, and the only studies available are those carried out by the companies themselves. Most scientists agree, however, that it is a very fragile ecosystem, where everything is interconnected. The hydrological model of the salar presented by the companies is that freshwater and saltwater cannot mix for density reasons,” says Domingo Lara. So for them, it’s as if brines are a different product from fresh water. But that’s not the case. Fresh water from the lagoons, for example, recharges the salar over a long period of time. Whether you extract brines or fresh water from the salar, you are draining the same basin, the same aquifer.
Faced with this problem, the company has set itself the objective of reducing the use of continental water by 65% and achieving carbon neutrality by 2040. This is a great ambition for a company that, owned since the Pinochet dictatorship by the nephew of the former Chilean general, has had to face up to cases of hidden financing of political campaigns, convictions for environmental pollution and failure to respect the rights of native peoples. It now presents itself as the “good neighbour” and claims that sustainable development is central to its lithium strategy.
“An extractivist, dirty and corrupt company
A seduction operation that farmer Christian Espindola is not fooled by: “SQM is destroying the Salar de Atacama, and at the same time, in its ‘good neighbour’ campaign, it is occupying our culture, our traditions, our ancestors. Why? To clean up their image as a dirty, corrupt, extractivist company. They sell lithium as a clean, green mineral, but that is a lie. Every mine damages and destroys its environment. In addition to the ecological disaster, they generate deep conflicts in the communities. We end up fighting among ourselves because of the mine. In the indigenous villages, some work with the mine or accept its money, others refuse to collaborate. This situation creates a lot of tension in these communities, which traditionally function as one big family.