©Pablo Rojas Madariaga / Danwatch

Lithium exploitation is drying out the world’s driest desert

Lithium exploitation is drying out the world’s driest desert 

*This article is a summary of a longer investigation project from Danwatch, published in collaboration with CATAPA and SETEM. More information at the end of the article.

The Acatama Desert in Chile, the world’s driest desert, is gradually losing its last water resources. Indigenous communities have been sounding the alarm for several years and are now being strengthened by scientific research and environmental organisations. Cause of this dehydration? Lithium mining.

Lithium is essential for the batteries in our phones, our computers and the explosive increase in the number of electric vehicles that are often seen as the key to a green energy transition. Chile, which has half of the world’s lithium reserves, has been declared the ‘Saudi Arabia of Lithium’ and almost all of its exports are currently extracted from the Atacama Desert, the driest place in the world. But extracting Atacama’s lithium means pumping up huge amounts of scarce water resources. Water resources that have enabled indigenous peoples and animals to survive in the desert for thousands of years. 

According to researchers, extraction is already causing lasting damage to the area’s fragile ecosystems. In the Atacama and elsewhere in Chile, indigenous communities are now protesting against current and future plans for lithium extraction. Many communities claim that they were never consulted before the mining projects, although the Chilean authorities are obliged to do so under international treaties ratified by the Chilean state. The Danish research centre Danwatch can document that companies like Samsung, Panasonic, Apple, Tesla and BMW get batteries from companies that use Chilean lithium.

With the country’s incomparable lithium reserves and the increasing importance of the metal for the energy sector, Chile has occasionally been awarded the label ‘Saudi Arabia of Lithium’. Nearly 40 percent of the global supply comes from Chile over the past 20 years and, as Danwatch can reveal, it ends up in some of the most popular electronics and electric cars. The metal is one of the most popular products of the Chilean energy sector. 

However, the Atacama’s indigenous communities were caught up in speed. Chile has signed ILO Convention 169, which obliges governments to consult indigenous people when major projects are carried out in their area. However, according to the people of Pai-Ote, they were not consulted before the lithium projects were presented in the media. “We found out from the press that an agreement had been made that allowed SQM to start lithium mining here. Nobody asked the Colla people if they wanted the mining on their territory,” says Ariel Leon, representative of the Colla community.

Chilean lithium can be extracted at low cost: miners pump lithium brine from a massive reservoir under the Atacama salt plain to huge puddles on the surface of the desert. The highest solar radiation in the world causes the water in the brine to evaporate quickly, causing the lithium to be scooped up together with other salts and minerals.

During this process, 95% of the extracted brine evaporates into the air. This accelerates the water scarcity in the Atacama, says Ingrid Garces, a professor of technology at the Chilean University of Antofagasta, who conducts research into salt pans. “In Chile, lithium mining is considered to be a normal form of mining, as if you were mining a hard rock. But this is not regular mining – it’s water extraction,” she says.

The two companies behind lithium mining in the Atacama, the Chilean Soc. Química & Minera de Chile (SQM) and the American Albemarle Corp. have permits to extract almost 2,000 litres of brine per second. In addition to the brine, lithium miners also extract significant amounts of fresh water along with the nearby copper mines. “The result is an impact on biodiversity in general. And that effect is already visible – the wetlands are drying out,” says Ingrid Garces.

Atacama’s indigenous communities have been sounding the alarm about water scarcity for years. According to the Atacama People’s Council, which represents 18 indigenous communities, rivers, lagoons and meadows have all declined in water over the past decade. However, the Chilean authorities have largely relied on the environmental impact assessments of the mining companies themselves. And, in general, these studies have not found any significant impact on water levels or the surrounding nature.

“For the locals, the change is very clear. They notice that there is less water for their animals, and they see how the rivers dry out. This anecdotal knowledge is not taken seriously by the companies or the state,” says Cristina Dorador, biologist and associate professor at the Chilean University of Antofagasta, who studies the microbial life in the Atacama.

In August 2019, an analysis of satellite images by the satellite analysis company SpaceKnow and the scientific journal Engineering & Technology came to a similar conclusion. Based on satellite images from the period 2015-2019, they saw a strong inverse relationship between the water level in the lithium ponds of SQM and the surrounding lagoons: “As the water level in the SQM ponds increased, the water level in the lagoons would drop”.

Ironically, the Atacama salt plain was once a large lake before it dried up thousands of years ago due to severe climate change. Scientists are studying the desert today as an example of what can happen to ecosystems elsewhere on the planet if global climate change becomes effective. But in an effort to mitigate rising temperatures with electric cars, industries are sucking away the little water left in the world’s driest desert with all the social and ecological impact as a consequence. 

Companies are often greenwashing. This greenwashing narrative is based on the claim that a substantial increase in metal mining is necessary to meet the material needs of renewable energy technologies and associated infrastructure. However, the renewable energy sector will under no circumstances consume the majority of the metals’ annual production. Nevertheless, this narrative let mining companies sacrificing new sites to explore

Danwatch, SETEM and CATAPA  did research to the impact of lithium exploitation in the framework of the European project: Make ICT Fair. This project wants to make the supply chain of electronics more visible and influence public buyers to ask their ICT suppliers, both mining companies and manufactures,  to improve environmental and labour condition. Lithium, as one of the most important metal in the transition to green economies, became the focus of this article.

Danwatch has been to Chile to investigate the country’s growing lithium extraction industry. In the process, they have interviewed numerous scientists, companies, politicians and the people who live closest to the extraction sites. They have reviewed the mining companies’ impact studies as well as the few independent research papers on the topic. They especially base the investigation on a 2019 study on lithium mining in Chile by researchers from Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability.
The investigation is supported by the EU-funded project Make ICT Fair and published in collaboration with SETEM and CATAPA.


Check all the articles from the investigation project below.

ARTICLE 1: Our demand for batteries is drying up the world’s most arid place.
ARTICLE 2: Much of the world’s lithium is being extracted from indigenous peoples’ territories against their will.
ARTICLE 3: Indigenous peoples face charges as they resist future lithium projects across Chile.

ARTICLE 4: There’s probably Chilean lithium behind the screen you’re reading this on.

ARTICLE 5: How much water is used to make the world’s batteries?

ARTICLE 6 / INTERVIEW: The mining companies only see water. But water is life for us.

Interview with 67-year old Clementino López, one of around 20,000 indigenous Likan Antai living in the Atacama Desert

ARTICLE 7 / VIDEO: Watch the surreal lithium extraction landscapes from above.

Watch the surreal lithium extraction landscapes from above

Written by Aäron De Fruyt and Charlotte Christiaens.
Photography: ©Pablo Rojas Madariaga / Danwatch

No Alto Maipo: Chile’s continued struggle against the mining industry for the right to water.

No Alto Maipo: Chile’s continued struggle against the mining industry for the right to water.

Emily Humphreys, 13 February 2019

Chile is recognised as the poster-child of neoliberalism, with a strong mandate of privatisation on any capital-rich resource. A clear example of this mandate can be seen in extractivist projects, particularly mining and hydroelectric projects. As Chile’s economy grows, thanks to a global addiction to raw minerals, a sinister struggle  underlies the country’s giant mining industry: water rights. And no, such rights are not found to trickle down from the private mining firms to the nation’s discriminated citizens.


The Maipo River Basin

Santiago de Chile, home to 7 million people, is a sprawling metropolitan jungle gripped to the roots of the Andes mountains. The Andes give the city not only a backdrop of formidable beautiful, they are also the source of the country’s most important water source: the Maipo river. The Maipo river basin runs 60km south of Santiago’s metropolitan region, supplying 90% of the city’s urban and residential water as well as 70% of total irrigation water (Baeur, 2016).

The significance of the river basin, also considered Santiago’s ‘green lung’, in providing life to the city and surrounding territories is undeniable, and its place in sustaining future generations translates its existence into a human and environmental right. Nevertheless, the Maipo river basin has become victim to an activity that threatens the supply of water to the citizens of the greater metropolitan region, one whose objective is to provide energy for Chile’s most lucrative industry: mining.


Copper: red gold

Copper mining is one of Chile’s most important economic activities, with 29% of global stock found in the country. Chile prides itself in being the number one producer of the red metal, for obvious reasons: Copper, and other precious metals, have made Chile the wealthiest country in Latin America (in economic terms). In short, copper is a resource which has infiltrated into the national fibre of Chile and the result is a heavily politicised and exploitative extractive industry. Mining is championed as the most attractive model for economic development and prosperity in Chile, and indeed, it can be argued that this economic model has given citizens a quality of life much sought after by neighbouring nations. But, this economic and material wealth has come at an alarming social and environmental cost.


Alto Maipo: an unnecessary project

50km southeast of Santiago, in the Cajon del Maipo region, the Alto Maipo Hydropower Project (PHAM) has become one of the biggest environmental struggles in the country’s history. The health of the Maipo river basin is under direct threat from two large-scale run of the river (ROR) hydroelectric projects which use the natural flow of a river to generate energy, avoiding the construction of a dam. With well-known tragedies of collapsing Dams, particularly jarring being the recent collapse of Brumadinho tailings dam in Brazil, a decision to avoid constructing a Dam may appear positive. The opposite is true.

Beginning in 2007, the Alto Maipo project has re-routed 100km of the Maipo river, bringing the flow of the river underground into artificial tunnels. The project, 68% complete, threatens environmental and social devastation for the citizens and ecological life of Cajon del Maipo depending on the rivers as a source of water. Further controversy underlying Alto Maipo is its proposed utility. Initially promoted as a public good to generate clean electricity and drive down energy costs, the majority of the generated energy will be supplied to Los Pelambres copper mine, the 5th largest in the world.

The Chilean mining subsidiary of U.S. company AES Gener, owner of Alto Maipo, won funding for the hydroelectric project from international development banks such as The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The project was proposed as a clean source of energy with minimal environmental impact. This claim contrasts starkly with facts outlined by the Centre for International Environmental Law:

  • Dramatic limitations on water access;
    • 60% reduction in potable water; 70% reduction in irrigation water
  • Significant erosion;
  • Desertification;
  • Impacts on protected areas and tourism;
  • Human rights at risk.

Additionally, recent studies have shown that the construction of Alto Maipo has released heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and manganese into the water table to carcinogenic levels.


Coordinadora Ciudadana No Alto Maipo: a civil uprising

The scale of negative impacts is indisputable. The communities facing a future of water scarcity and environmental degradation have mobilised to create the Coordinadora Ciudadana No Alto Maipo, a campaign led by Marcela Mella Ortiz, its compelling and dynamic spokeswoman. No Alto Maipo is a response to a state-backed economic model which clashes relentlessly with citizens fighting to protect human and environmental rights. The dispossession of land is a common thread through the fabric of marginalized Latin America, yet the case of Alto Maipo is not one of geographic displacement; rather it is a displacement from our most indispensable resource: Water.

The controversy and societal backlash against Alto Maipo has remained present since its inception in 2007. Described by Mella Ortiz as an ‘unviable project from the very beginning’, the cost of the project now far exceeds initial investments ($600 million – $3 billion), reflecting the poor development plans of AES Gener. In 2017, Antofagasta, Chile’s largest mining company, removed its 40% share in Alto Maipo due to continuous budget increases. Further controversy surrounding the project stems from the numerous irregularities in the environmental impact assessments of the site. This rings resounding environmental alarm bells, coupled with bells of corruption and political playhouse tactics.

For more than 10 years, strings of sanctions and legal proceedings have followed AES Gener. Construction works have been suspended through judicial order, as the project expanded beyond the area outlined within the environmental impact assessment results.

Currently, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), an independent accountability mechanism which reviews private finance provided by the World Bank Group, is carrying out investigations into complaints that the environmental and social impacts of the hydroelectric project will cause irreversible damage to the health of communities and ecosystems along the Maipo river basin, including negative impacts on the Chilean economy.


The struggle for water rights: a familiar story

Civil society unrest surrounding water rights is an all-too-familiar story in Chile, the Mauro tailings dam of Caimanes being an emblematic case. The Caimanes case has grown into a 20 year struggle, one marked by displacements, criminalisation of leading activists and strategic divisions within the community orchestrated by Antofagasta mining company. This struggle has been described as a contention in a territory that “lacks political opportunities and resources”, a description which echoes the Alto Maipo case.

The Caimanes community has suffered from severe water loss as a direct result of the tailings dam, one built specifically to collect toxic waste from Los Pelambres copper mine. Understandably, the citizens of Cajon del Maipo and Santiago de Chile do not want to face similar levels of exploitation.  

With aspirations by AES Gener to complete Alto Maipo by 2020, communities living along the construction lines are already suffering the impacts of such intensive extractivism. The project has been described as a ‘sickness’ and one that has drawn deep divisions between small communities.

Chile is a country with one the highest potentials for renewable energy production, so why are the government and private entities continuing along a path of such callous exploitation? Mankind’s addiction to mineral resources is on a course of acceleration, with OECD figures stating that consumption of global minerals is set to double by 2060. As such, the efforts of civil society groups like No Alto Maipo play a vital role in sustaining future livelihoods in Chile, but multilateral agreements and policies must be forged between civil society, government and private entities to achieve a sustainable future.

Despite the sanctions, suspensions and thousand-fold civil unrest, works have once again commenced on the project, with the 2020 completion goal in sight. Nevertheless, the work of No Alto Maipo and thousands of Chilean citizens is not over. To keep up-to-date with the activities of No Alto Maipo visit their website, Facebook and Twitter. Spokeswoman Marcela Mella Otriz will visit Belguim for the Open Min(e)d festival 10-17 March 2019. A full overview of her lectures and workshops in Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and Leuven can be viewed here.

Living under risk – Copper, ICT and Human Rights in Chile

Living under risk

Copper, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Human Rights in Chile

Catapa published this report together with War on Want. You can read it here.


Chile is currently the largest copper producer in the world, holding 29% of the world reserves of the red metal. Copper represents a crucial portion of the Chilean economy and the copper industry -as will be shown in this report- is highly influential in national politics.

But the extent and intensity of copper extraction across Chile’s territory has precipitated negative impacts in the environment and on communities that resist extractivism.

Through the analysis of a case study, this report unveils the adverse socio-environmental impacts of copper extraction and discusses the role of the company, the national government and international actors in addressing the consequences brought by the copper mining industry.

Within this last group, this report highlights the role that ICTs –which represent 24% of the usage of copper (Comisión Chilena del Cobre, 2016a) – could play in the improvement of social, environmental and labour conditions at the local level.


The case study

Caimanes is a small agrarian town situated in northern Chile that has been at the centre of opposition to the Los Pelambres (hereinafter MLP or the Company) mining project, the fifth largest copper mine in the world. The community does not have political relations with national or local elites, and therefore, as will be seen, its opportunities for mobilisation have been mostly limited.

Yet, the local community reacted against the construction of El Mauro tailings dam –the largest in Latin America- identifying various negative socio-environmental impacts on issues of water, health and security. As will be detailed in this report, the capacity of the community to mobilise resources has varied across the 20 years of struggle. Through its history of resistance, the community has gone through different phases of mobilisation: from a period of direct action to a process of formalising its demands in a judicial lawsuit, which has marked the last 10 years of mobilisation.

This case also reveals a process of countermobilisation to the protest. Given the significant scale of the project, and its high
levels of associated investment, the mining project has been assiduously defended by the state and the Company, restricting the possibilities for social contention. As will be seen throughout the report, both the Company and the state have deployed direct techniques of repression such as forced displacement, the criminalisation of local leaders, and use of police forces to suppress protests. Additionally, the corporate-state nexus, has also used more sophisticated forms of counter-mobilisation such as using company-community interactions to divide the inhabitants of Caimanes, and diminishing their capacity to decide in formal spaces of community engagement.

By analysing the mechanisms that explain the rise of the Caimanes mobilisation and its main shifts, this report explores the
emergence of micro-dynamics of contention in territories that lack political opportunities and resources. Its insights allow us to understand episodes of protest in an unfavourable context for social contention; and how, despite this restrictive context, the community has been able to create opportunities, resources and solidarities at different stages of the conflict.

The report begins with a contextualisation of the political economy of copper in Chile, highlighting how it relates to consumption at a global scale, with a specific emphasis placed on the consumption of ICTs. It then generates a process-tracing analysis of the episodes of contention marked by two significant stages of protest: (i) a period during which the community aimed to, and were successful in receiving compensation from the company and (ii) a period during which the community sought to legally demonstrate the negative impacts of the project. This part of the report includes a discussion about the interlinked relationship of the community with a growing labour movement that has not yet been able to coordinate their demands with the socioenvironmental movement. The concluding section summarises these two periods of
protest highlighting the most important elements that have generated conflict in the last 20 years. It also shows how the global consumption of copper (especially from ICTs), the closed political opportunities at the national level, the process of countermobilisation by the Company and lack of networks have ended up dividing and isolating the community, diminishing its capacity to self-organise.