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.