‘Water predators’: the industry behind ‘green’ energy Transition minerals from the world's most arid ecosystem

Climate ambitions do not take into account the irreversible consequences of mining. In northern Chile, an ancient ecosystem and a 12,000 year-old culture are being sacrificed. Are climate policies destroying precisely what they could fix? This article examines the impact of lithium mining on the ecosystem and its inhabitant communities in the Atacama desert in Chile. A first-person perspective by Darko Lagunas, the article demonstrates the urgent need for those communities who are the prime rights-holders to be genuinely front and center in any movement building around these impacts.


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Darko Lagunas
Carlos Vega with his llamas, overlooking the Lascar volcano, which has important significance to the Lickanantay as guardian of the area's water; from the Lickanantay (láskar or lassi) literally translates to "tongue".

Darko Lagunas©

Carlos Vega with his llamas, overlooking the Lascar volcano, which has important significance to the Lickanantay as guardian of the area's water; from the Lickanantay (láskar or lassi) literally translates to "tongue".

It’s rainy season in the world's driest ecosystem. The "Bolivian winter" brings rare rainfall to the high plains of Chile's Atacama Desert. Upon my arrival, water is pouring from the sky. A strange sensation in the desert, especially since climate change is causing it to rain less and less. Essential water reservoirs are replenishing very slowly. Yet this is not the biggest threat to life in this area.

Through a close acquaintance from Santiago, I meet Carlos Vega. He is 49 years old and lives with his family in Coyo, a small Lickanantay community in the north of the Salar de Atacama. The Lickanantay are an indigenous culture whose oldest archaeological findings in the Atacama Desert date back more than 12,000 years. From hunter-gatherers, the Lickanantay have evolved into farmers and herders through strong adaptability and regular interaction with neighboring communities from southern Bolivia and northern Argentina. To survive here, common use of limited resources is vital. From more than 2,400 meters above sea level, with one of the most unforgiving climates on earth, the Lickanantay have managed to produce food with refined local knowledge and technologies and with very scarce water.

That scarce water is now at stake. 'We were here well before the Incas and now our existence and the traditions of our ancestors are threatened,' says Vega. 'Water is the basis of life and the scale on which it is being extracted is threatening us, our animals and the land we feed.'

Aquifers from the surrounding mountains and volcanoes feed into the Salar de Atacama basin. With an area of three thousand square kilometers, it is one of the world's largest salt lakes. For thousands of years, this salt lake, which ecologists call a wetland despite its dry climate, has been an important refuge for the Lickanantay and an oasis of biodiversity.

But the mineral wealth in the Atacama has attracted much attention since the late nineteenth century. Chile fought the saltpeter war with neighboring countries Peru and Bolivia, conquering an area that has seen increasing large-scale mining activity since the 1980s. First for saltpeter, then for copper and now for lithium for electric vehicles. All these mega-industries lay claim to the area's few water resources.

'Our territory has turned into a sacrifice zone,' Vega explains. 'In some places, the water table has dropped by two meters. And they have already drained the water from the Salar de Punta Negra.'

During our first encounter, we sit in Vega's backyard that reminds one of a botanical garden. In the middle of the driest desert in the world, forests of mint, every color of corn and a pharmacy of medicinal plants grow here. Carefully Vega explains the working powers of each plant. It gets dark quickly, and with each sentence he speaks I can see him less clearly.

He speaks about the Salar de Punta Negra, south of the Salar de Atacama. It was drained between 1990 and 2017 by the Escondida mine: the world's largest copper mine owned by Australian BHP. In 2021, the mining company was found responsible by Chile's first environmental tribunal. BHP may have to pay more than $90 million in compensation money, but the mine is still running at full capacity and is now pumping water from other watersheds.

The Escondida mine is just one of many mines in the area. The Salar de Atacama is surrounded by huge open pit mines like Lomas Bayas which is owned by the U.S. Glencore and the Gabriela Mistral and Chuquicamata mines owned by the Chilean copper producer Codelco. The salt lake itself is home to the world's largest lithium producers, U.S. Albemarle and Chilean SQM.

Chilean SQM's largest shareholder is Julio Ponce Lerou, the ex-son-in-law of former military dictator Augusto Pinochet. His wealth was made possible by the privatization of state-owned companies during the dictator's rule (1973-1990).

. Roadblock with residual waste from the Albemarle lithium mine, with on the right some tubes pumping 'brine' underground to the evaporation ponds

Darko Lagunas©

Roadblock with residual waste from the Albemarle lithium mine, with on the right some tubes pumping 'brine' underground to the evaporation ponds.

On the Salar de Atacama, sqm and Albemarle are jointly pumping roughly two thousand liters of water per second from the groundwater. 95 percent of all that water is evaporated in large evaporation ponds, after which the remaining lithium and other non-metallic minerals can be "harvested". According to one study, the amount of water that is being pumped out is at least 21 percent more than the salt lake can accommodate, given its natural water inflow. With increasing production and a lack of environmental regulations, that figure can only increase, meaning the salt lake could rapidly dry up due to mining.

'The Salar de Atacama is a water basin. If you pump out water on one side of a basin it affects everyone,' Vega said.

The presence and impact of mining have cornered local communities around the Salar de Atacama. Vega explains how some 10 years ago it was inevitable for the then Lickanantay president to initiate talks with the mining companies.

Thus, in 2017, the Council of Atacama Communities (Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños, CPA) reached an agreement with Rockwood Lithium, the U.S. mining company now known as Albemarle. Since then, in compensation, the cpa has been receiving a small percentage of profits from Albemarle, which are distributed to projects that benefit Lickanantay communities.

I make contact with Manuel Salvatierra, ex-president of the council. He recently stepped down from his duties. 'There comes a time when you have to pay attention to your family. I am focusing on my personal life for now,' he says. In the shade of an algarrobo (carob tree), we seek shelter from the scorching sun. Salvatierra (literally translated "earth-saver") explains the council's complicated role.

The CPA stands for preserving Lickanantay culture and protecting the territory from outside influences. Illustrative of the CPA's work was their contribution during the COP25 in Madrid when they made the statement that there is no sustainable mining in the Atacama, and that the Lickanantay do not want to be the trade-off for the development of green economies.

However, the treaty that the CPA reached with Albemarle is causing much criticism against the CPA's role. For example, the CPA has been accused that everything is now about money rather than traditions and cultural preservation. In response to the criticism, Salvatierra says. "You have to imagine that this is one of the regions where most of the minerals come from. Copper, rare earths, lithium, saltpeter. But we see nothing in return of this wealth. In terms of public services, health care, energy supplies and drinking water, the Chilean government is completely absent.'

During our conversation in February, Salvatierra explained that after more than 30 years of mining in the area, no dialogue with the government has been possible. 'That's why, as Lickanantay communities, we entered into dialogue with the mining companies. As a last resort, and as a way to return dignity and self-determination to the communities.' Before then, the Lickanantay communities did not exist for the mining companies.

The dominance of mining in the area explains the absence of government, according to Salvatierra. The idea is that in a desert there is no life. And where there is no life, there are no rights, no governance or public services needed. But the reality is different. So mining dollars fill an important vacuum left by the government, Salvatierra says. "Thanks to this money, our communities are doing well, unlike in other areas. We can now create the public services we need ourselves".

The treaty the CPA signed with Albemarle is quite lucrative. Thanks to the booming lithium industry, Albemarle had fourteen times more revenue last year than the year before. 'Before you win a lottery you have no idea what the effect of that much money will bring. We are in that same process,' says Salvatierra.

Which is the crux of the problem according to critics, who see mining dollars as a threat to their way of life. Carlos Vega is one of these people and repeatedly sighs that nowadays everything is just about money. Community meetings are no longer about the land, the water or the way of life of the Lickanantay, but about money.

On Zoom, I meet with Chilean Bárbara Jerez Henríquez, postdoctoral fellow in the political ecology of lithium at the University of Concepción. She did a lot of research on the social-ecological impact of mining in the area. 'For the communities, it was initially a survival strategy,' she explains. 'But money from mining has always been a strategy for companies to undermine and divide communities. The original relationships between communities are being commodified and "bureaucratized."' Jerez Henríquez calls it the introduction of a Western, neoliberal logic. It keeps people busy and takes up valuable time that was previously used to maintain community relations.

In modern capitalist societies like in the West we know no different, but Carlos Vega helps with an example. During our second encounter, we sit in the shade of an old tamarugo tree while Vega's goats and llamas wander around us, looking for vegetation to graze. In the distance, the Lascar volcano stands out against a typical pink-blue sky of an early evening on the high plains.

'Traditionally, we live together on the land,' he says. 'It takes over a day to tend a section of land and then there are times when you have to shelter from the heat or wait for the animals. These are precious moments that you spend together talking about how you are doing, how your family is doing or how the land is doing further away. This time is essential to building community and relationships. With the mining dollars came the tractor, then at the end of the day a short conversation is all you share.'

Moreover, the younger generation to keep the Lickanantay culture alive are being contracted by the mining industry. 'Our youth are being lured by the fast money they can make in the mines.' Vega speaks from experience. He worked in the lithium mine himself. The conditions were harsh and sometimes inhumane. 'You would work night shifts seven days in a row and sleep during the day. In the middle of the salt lake with extreme heat in containers without air conditioning. So we just slept on mattresses under the containers for some fresh air. But you can make relatively good money.' When they have free time, young people do not have time to work the land afterward, and prefer to do their shopping at the mall in Calama, a two-hour drive away.

A break in the relationship with the landscape is at the same time a break with valuable traditions. Knowledge transfer and bartering with scarce resources gave way to discussions about money.  What was historically a cornerstone of the Lickanantay way of life disappears because of a new reality that is imposed. The mall has replaced it.

A form of ethnocide, explains Chilean Jerez Henríquez. 'Talking, practicing and transmitting knowledge is fundamental to life in original communities where knowledge is mainly transmitted orally.' With millions of dollars flowing into communities through the CPA, that time is no longer there. A modern capitalist world is being forcibly introduced. Now distrust and money increasingly play the leading role and nature becomes only a resource of "progress." As a result, a culture with more than twelve thousand years of experience and traditions may disappear forever.

This has everything to do with climate ambitions in the northern hemisphere. In March, for example, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that "the race has begun to determine who will be dominant in the market for clean tech in the future". It is the tone of the geopolitical battle underway in the field of critical transition minerals.

An important step the EU made in this struggle is a new trade agreement with Chile, signed late December 2022. The treaty, which further liberalizes free trade between Chile and the EU, should improve European access to transition minerals such as lithium, copper and hydrogen from Chile. With the largest copper and lithium reserves worldwide, Chile (according to the U.S. Geological Survey) is an important trading partner for the EU. By 2040, global demand for copper will grow five times (according to Chile's Ministry of Mining) and demand for lithium will grow by a significant five hundred percent by 2050 (according to the World Bank). This year alone, lithium giant SQM expects forty percent growth in demand for lithium.

Business is booming. But while the treaty was announced by EU Vice President Josep Borrell with high words about common values such as sustainability and human rights, the EU does not want to pay taxes to Chilean citizens. The new treaty cuts 99 percent of all export taxes. In the geopolitical tug-of-war, Chilean citizens, especially those experiencing ecological impacts in the Atacama Desert, are drawing the short straw.

After all, while the wealth of the Atacama fuels the energy transition in the global north, power for local villages is generated by screeching petroleum generators. Water only flows from the tap during the day, contaminated with heavy metals. For drinking water, locals depend on bottled mineral water from the supermarket. The first hospital is a two- to three-hour drive from the salt lake. The "beating heart of the mining industry" sits a few hours' drive away along the coast. There, fifteen coal-fired power plants generate electricity for "green" mining, and are responsible for the highest number of people with lung cancer and respiratory problems in Chile.

Sulphuric acid truck along the mining route next to the Lomas Bayas copper mine

Darko Lagunas©

Sulphuric acid truck along the mining route next to the Lomas Bayas copper mine.

This year, the government of President Gabriel Boric announced two important measures. The nationalization of Chilean lithium and a tightening of environmental requirements for lithium mining. With the "National Lithium Strategy" proposed by Boric, he wants to "increase Chilean wealth". Not a silly plan. SQM made nearly four billion in profits in 2022 alone. The nationalization of lithium could provide a financial boost to the country's insufficient health care, education, housing and other public services. Now all that remains is implementation.

Which was something that already backfired during the announcement of the plans. Indeed, there was talk of the importance of coordinating with local communities, but there was no dialogue whatsoever with the Lickanantay communities or the CPA on the government's plans. The ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous Peoples, ratified by Chile, stipulates that these peoples must be consulted beforehand when measures are taken that may directly affect them. This did not happen. Gently put, an uncomfortable start.

Moreover, critics argue that the plans take a reductionist view of ecosystems in northern Chile, as the plans categorize seventy percent of salt lakes as "replaceable". Only thirty percent will be protected. This opens the door for more sacrifice zones in the area for the sake of economic progress in Chile, without involving the local communities.

As for environmental demands. In March this year, Boric announced that Chile does not want more evaporation ponds. The preferred option is more sustainable and less water-intensive forms of lithium extraction, such as "direct lithium extraction methods" (DLE). I meet with Henk van Alphen to discuss the technology; he is CEO of the Canadian mining company Wealth Minerals Ltd. which is well into the development of DLE. 'With this technology, we pump back almost all the water, without lithium,' he says. 'That way we consume only ten liters of water per second, compared to the two thousand liters of water SQM consumes per second in evaporation ponds.'

With DLE, Van Alphen hopes to finally open a mine on the Salar de Atacama. They have been working on that for years, without much success. 'The others prefer to keep everything to themselves,' Van Alphen accuses SQM and Albemarle as he paints a picture of House of Cards-like intrigues between powerful stakeholders on the salt lake and politicians. 'Let's say the [conservative] Piñera government was relatively close with Albemarle and SQM. Existing agreements that Wealth Minerals had made with the previous Bachelet government were swept right off the table by Piñera.'

Piñera is now one of the prime suspects in the "SQM case" that began this year. The case came to light in late 2015 and investigates charges of corruption, bribery of politicians and tax evasion by SQM.'The new Boric government is nowhere near as in love with Albemarle and SQM,' says Van Alphen. 'With the new environmental requirements, they have quite a problem on their hands. SQM's license runs until 2030 and they don't want to be forced to invest in more sustainable technologies. After all, they only have seven years left, with no guarantee of renewal.'

For Wealth Minerals, things look good with the new environmental requirements. But the measures offer little perspective to local communities. Environmental requirements are used mainly as leverage in a competitive race, and nationalizing lithium seems to serve mainly the national neoliberal economy, while paving the road for more extraction. After all, there is a crushing global demand for lithium, and green promises by politicians in Europe bulldoze local interests. 'There are huge revenues underground over there. Nobody drinks that water. Surely it would be a waste not to extract the lithium,' Van Alphen said.

The 'fossil water' (brine) that Van Alphen talks about is however vital for all biodiversity in this area, explains the Argentinian microbiologist Maria Farías. "This water with very high salt concentrations provides a unique habitat for one of the world's most primitive ecosystems on Earth". Farías co-authored the report ‘Extremophiles and the Origins of Life in the Atacama’. Thanks to the report's findings, the Tebenquiche lagoon on the Salar de Atacama was declared a natural reserve. 'The decisive outcome of the report was the capacity of microbes to produce oxygen. Percentage-wise, this is more per square meter than a square meter of Amazon forest.'

The critters responsible for this are a type of microorganisms called "saline extremophilic bacteria". A type of living fossils that thrive in conditions similar to those at the beginning of life on Earth more than three billion years ago. This type of organisms were the basis of life on Earth as we know it today, in part because of their exceptional ability to produce oxygen. The microbes are also the diet of the flamingos that live in this area, among other animals.

What makes these microbes so unique is that they can only survive in very specific conditions. On the high plains above 2,500 meters in salt lakes with high salt concentrations and high underground pressure due to little water. These conditions are fragile and small fluctuations in salinity, water or underground pressure can cause entire colonies to die out.

Lithium and water extraction create disturbances in underground pressures and are thus a threat to this ecosystem. Direct lithium extraction (DLE) methods are no exception in this regard. DLE also disrupts the fragile balance by extracting lithium. According to Farías, a mortal sin for an invaluable ecosystem. 'Before we know it, we are destroying it, while the bacteria may offer important solutions to future problems we don't even know about yet.' In particular, the medical solutions offered by extremophilic bacteria are enormous, Farías explains. For example, another extremophilic bacterium from Yellowstone produces an enzyme essential for Covid-19 detection in PCR tests. 'This shows that the unique properties of these bacteria are decisive in medicine. The extremophilic bacteria in the different salt lakes in the Atacama offer numerous potentially new antioxidants and antibiotics,' says Farías.

'Antibiotics are natural bacterial reactions that we cultivate in laboratories. What makes the salt lakes in the plateau of the Atacama so special are the extreme conditions: altitude, presence of water with high salt concentrations, dry climate and the presence of this microbial wealth that has adapted to these conditions over millions of years.

Earlier, Carlos Vega told us that the Lickanantay know the medicinal powers of the salt lake. He drew a pyramid with three levels in the sand. At different depths are various microbial layers, he explained. They produce layers of antibiotics that the bacteria use to keep each other apart. 'If you mix a handful of microbes, you have a strong medicine. A distant ancestor must have found that out by accidentally stepping into the salt lake with an injured leg,' he says with a laugh. 'Our knowledge is now substantiated by Western science.'

Farías explains that because of the unique conditions in the Atacama, it is only possible to cultivate two percent of the existing bacteria from the salt lakes; 98 percent of the lakes' unique bacterial properties - which we thus still know very little about - are at risk of going extinct within a few years due to increasing drought and mass extraction of lithium. 'It's a race against time,' Farías said.

The wealth of solutions offered by bacteria led Farías to leave science and co-found the start-up Punabio. 'With the start-up I co-founded with other scientists, we cultivate microbes from salt lakes that help regenerate agricultural land. They are a solution to drought-affected soils and can extract large amounts of CO2 from the air.'

Roadside restaurant on the mining route from the high plains to the ports of Mejillones and Tocopilla, where the bellies of ships are loaded with riches from the bottom of the Atacama Desert.

Darko Lagunas©

Roadside restaurant on the mining route from the high plains to the ports of Mejillones and Tocopilla, where the bellies of ships are loaded with riches from the bottom of the Atacama Desert.

Local ecosystems and their inhabitants are sacrificed for global climate ambitions in the race for dominance over transition minerals. The scale and methods of mining operations in northern Chile are just one example of where a unique ecosystem and the ways of life of local communities are traded off for green growth.

How healthy and resilient these ecosystems are, or how climate-resilient and vulnerable the lives of residents are - that does not stop mining from irreversibly devastating these territories. This impact, unlike the future predictions that climate policy and IPCC mathematical models focus on, is immediate.

A recent report by Stichting Onderzoek Multinationale Ondernemingen (SOMO) shows that by 2031 the global production capacity of Li-ion batteries will increase to nearly eight thousand GWh. This is enough to power 2.6 million homes for an entire year.

Ninety percent of the demand for these batteries will come from the electric vehicle industry of which over 87 percent is expected to be sold in the U.S., Europe, India and China. The true price of electric vehicles in just a few countries is paid in the Atacama Desert with precious water, food, health, oxygen and lives of humans and non-humans. "Instead of depleting the water and soil here by this mega-industry, we should cherish this earth for the wealth that is there," Vega concludes.

In San Pedro de Atacama, the public space is full of posters. 'You will drink lithium and eat copper, when there is no more land to abuse'. 'Lithium is not to blame, but those who profit from it'. 'The desert as a wounded body'. It is the work of local design collective LAGDA. When I ask a local official about the water level of a local water spring, she speaks of "water predators" threatening life throughout the region, pointing in the direction of SQM and Albemarle.

The sentiment among many Chileans is that the country is once again being robbed of its mineral resources by foreign profiteers. Measures that are being taken come under pressure from an overwhelming global demand for resources and leave neither time nor space for careful dialogue with the local Lickanantay population. Communities have no chance to say no to mining, which according to the ILO Convention 169 they should.

Some argue that a just transition requires a focus on reducing the material footprint. More and better public transportation and a fundamentally different relationship with cars are a possible step in this direction. But trade treaties motivated by a drift toward dominance can hardly serve "common values" either. In such endeavors, countries with an industrial advantage always come out on top. 

Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote in the late 1980s about the situation on the continent of Latin America. 'This is the region of open veins. Everything, from its discovery to our time, has always been transmuted into European - or later U.S. - capital, and as such has accumulated in distant centers of power.' The situation of lithium confirms that this colonial-imperialist way of doing business operates in a green jacket today.

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