Lithium sparks disputes in Chile’s Atacama Desert – by Lorena Guzman ( – October 16, 2020)

Lithium is considered a strategic resource in Chile, and its exploitation is steeped in difficulties.

For almost four years the activity has been the source of a legal dispute between the communities of the Atacama Desert and SQM, one of the country’s biggest companies, which is partially owned by the Chinese firm Tianqi since 2019.

Some 1,500km north of the capital Santiago de Chile lies the driest desert in the world. The Atacama once contained enormous masses of water, but what is left now hides underneath the surface, mixed with valuable minerals.

Historically, the Atacama has been a key point for mining in Chile. First with saltpetre, at the beginning of the last century; then copper, which is still the country’s main export; and now lithium. Chile is the second largest lithium producer after Australia and activity is expanding.

With the development of electric cars booming, large quantities of the mineral are needed for their batteries, raising its value. The environmental cost of extraction is predicted to be high, although the full extent is yet to be determined. It is this damage that raises concern in the communities of Chile.

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