Salar de Atacama is rich in lithium, essential to electric cars and other low-carbon tech. But indigenous people are fighting its extraction, saying private interests are cashing in at the expense of their environment.
The Salar de Atacama’s geysers, volcanoes and flamingos attract tourists from around the world. But beneath its dramatic vistas, the Chilean salt flats hide something of far greater economic potential that’s drawing a different kind of interest – from the world’s chemical companies.
Lithium batteries are essential to all kinds of gadgets from laptops and mobile phones to the electric cars and power storage facilities that are to help wean the world of fossil fuels. As the world shifts to renewables, more and more sectors are to be electrified, and demand for lithium is expected to double by 2025.
Salar de Atacama contains some of the world’s richest lithium deposits. Which means Chile is sitting on a goldmine. But exploiting it could come at a terrible environmental cost, protestors say.
The Chilean government wants to boost lithium production and potentially manufacture batteries in the country, breaking classic supply model where Latin American countries provide materials for products produced elsewhere.
To this end, it signed over lithium concessions to Chilean mining company SQM in January – a deal that’s to see extraction triple by 2030. But environmentalists and mining unions are outraged. “For us, the contract is illegal,” said Miguel Soto, chairman of the Lithium for Chile movement that organized demonstrations against it on the streets of Santiago de Chile.
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