Environmental and Economic Effects of Lithium Mining in Chile

Disucssing the impact of invasive Lithium mining in the Atacama region of Chile and how it affects local communities.

 FREMONT, CA: Chile produces the world's second-largest amount of Lithium, the metal which is a key component of electric vehicles, consumer electronics, batteries, and semiconductors. Found in large deposits beneath salt flats on South America’s Atacama Plateau, it is extensively mined. The way Lithium is extracted in developing  Latin American countries is extremely water draining. Miners pump large amounts of salty lithium-containing water, known as brine, into ponds and lakes, where it can take years for the evaporation process to separate the lithium. This method drains local water bodies, damaging surrounding ecosystems and affecting local communities who rely on an already scarce water supply in the arid region.

The government policy of privatization of water and minerals in  Chile gives companies the rights to the region rather than locals who have to rely on tankers instead of local water resources. As the demand for materials used in clean energy by US, European and Chinese companies grows, the pressure on indigenous communities is immense. If the conditions that sustain their livelihoods are compromised, they will be forced to migrate from their settlements which also poses a risk to local biodiversity.

Elena Rivera Cardoso,  the president of the Indigenous Colla community of the Copiapó commune in northern Chile, laments that the locals pay the price for mining operations while getting none of the metal’s benefits. She reports that Chile gets nothing as the country doesn't have the facility for electric vehicles. The lithium and green energy produced is imported to other nations while the developing Latin American country bears the brunt of its environmental impacts.

Currently, Chile is reconfiguring its constitution, a process launched after a nationwide protest in 2019. Presently being worked on by 155 elected constituents, the new document could radically restructure the country’s extractive industries—with potential benefits for the Colla community and the delicate ecosystem it calls home.