A Danwatch investigation

Indigenous peoples face charges as they resist future lithium projects across Chile

Santiago demonstration in September demanding a stop to “the extraction that destroys our ecosystems”. Overexploitation of Chile’s natural resources and the marginalisation of the country’s indigenous peoples have been topics leading to confrontations both before and during the current nationwide protests.

Sophia Boddenberg
Photo: Pablo Rojas Madariaga
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1. December 2019
Amid soaring global demand for lithium, more and more sites in Chile are being explored for extraction. Across the country, indigenous communities oppose future mining projects.

The “white gold rush” reigns in Chile these days. With demand for batteries and EV cars increasing, the global lithium market is expected to increase to almost 10 times its current size by 2030.  As Chile starts to lag behind its previous production forecasts, the country’s Mining Minister has recently called for the exploration of lithium in “more than 50 salt flats” across the country.

About the investigation

Danwatch has been to Chile to investigate the country’s growing lithium extraction industry. In the process, we have interviewed numerous scientists, companies, politicians and the people who live closest to the extraction sites.

We have reviewed the mining companies’ impact studies as well as the few independent research papers on the topic. We especially base our investigation on a 2019 study on lithium mining in Chile by researchers from Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability.

The investigation was supported by the EU-funded project Make ICT Fair and published in collaboration with Setem.

But the onward march of the mining companies and their new explorations is also triggering new conflicts with indigenous communities worried about their ecosystems, agriculture and ancestral territories.

Take, for example, the Coipasa salt flat, near the Bolivian border. The Canadian company Lithium Chile Inc. has been buying property here to initiate a lithium-exploration program. But not long after the company announced its exploration plans, members of the nearby indigenous Aymara community of Ancovinto began protesting against the extraction plans and tried to prevent Lithium Chile from accessing the wetlands of their surrounding environment.

After lithium extraction on the Atacama salt flat caused conflict over the few water resources several hundred kilometers south of Ancovinto, community members from the already arid and high-altitude area now worry about the impact on their quinoa crops and llama livestock.

“We Aymaras have subsisted for thousands of years in our lands, with our agriculture and livestock”, an Ancovinto resident and member of the anti-lithium mining group Ancovinto Resiste, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote to Danwatch.

Llama at one of the greener parts of the Atacama Salt Flat.

“We defend our indigenous community, and we will continue to protect it from being sacked, exploited and contaminated by the extraction of lithium”, the spokesperson added.


Is there any such thing as ‘green mining’?

In 2019 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was handed to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for the development of the lithium-ion battery - amongst other things, because it enables electric vehicles and mega batteries that can “store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society.”

Such a transition to low-carbon technologies however fuels new demands for particular minerals used in for example solar panels, wind turbines and batteries.

Many scientists say that more mineral extraction for renewables is without a doubt preferable to a continued dependence on fossil fuels.

Nevertheless, the costs of extracting new groups of minerals for renewables become more evident as global demands rise.

Lithium is mined in various ways around the world, each with appertaining risks and drawbacks. Out of the top five lithium producing companies, all five have human rights allegations against them according to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center.

In Australia and North America, lithium is extracted from rock but requires the use of chemicals which have led to pollution of water resources in the US. In Tibet, a Chinese lithium mine has caused environmental pollution resulting in fish dying in nearby rivers.

In Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, lithium is extracted from subterranean brine deposits. The main environmental problem in this regard is the massive use of water resources from arid areas.

While scientists are optimistic about finding alternatives to other harmful components of lithium-ion batteries, such as cobalt, alternatives to lithium seem to have long prospects. A lot of research is however currently done on the potential reuse of lithium-ion batteries. Only very few rechargeable batteries are being recycled today.

Sources: Nobelprize.org, Business and Human Rights Resource Center, The Verge, Washington Post, Wired, Friends of the Earth, Danwatch

Indigenous community is being sued

Lithium Chile has been buying an increasing number of lithium-exploration projects in Chile over the past few years, fast turning the Canadian mining company into one of the largest landholders of lithium-rich salt flats in Chile.

In April 2019, the company announced that it had received approval from the local communities for an exploration program at its Coipasa salt flat property. According to a company press release, this established “Lithium Chile as a clear leader amongst Chilean lithium exploration companies in the ability to work constructively with local communities and successfully gaining their support.”

Only a few months later, however, it became evident that the Ancovinto community had not approved the company’s exploration plans. When community members would not let the company enter their territory, Lithium Chile took the matter to the local mining court and sued the community in order to get a binding access order to the area.

Structures from colonial times

Ancovinto Resiste claims that the community was never properly informed of the company’s plans or of the potential consequences of mining, saying the company had been trying to exploit “the humility and lack of knowledge” of the community.

Lithium Chile tells Danwatch that the company does not wish to comment on the issue while the court case is ongoing. According to the company’s press releases, it expects to get the access order from the court soon.

Lithium extraction in the Atacama. Brine is pumped from the desert’s underground and into massive evaporation ponds.

But Ancovinto community members tell Danwatch that they will keep attempting to prevent the company from accessing their territory. Ancovinto Resiste claims the Chilean government will not stand up to defend the indigenous communities’ environment, so the communities must do so themselves.

It is colonial structures being repeated, when our flora and fauna is destroyed to meet the demands for electric cars in Germany, USA and Canada

Spokesperson, Ancovinto Resiste

“Companies come here to satisfy a demand that comes from countries of the Global North. It is colonial structures being repeated, when our flora and fauna is destroyed to meet the demands for electric cars in Germany, USA and Canada”, says the Ancovinto Resiste spokesperson who wishes to stay anonymous.

A sacred matter

Several hundred kilometers south of the Coipasa salt flat, the Maricunga salt flat is also being explored for impending extraction. The area is less than five percent the size of the Atacama salt flat, where almost all of Chile’s lithium extraction currently takes place, but after the Atacama, the Maricunga is believed to hold the country’s largest lithium reserves.

Chilean water is privatised

  • As one of the only countries in the world, Chile has almost privatised 100 percent of its water resources. Rights to water are like any other commodity  traded and sold to the highest bidder.
  • In 1981 Chile’s water was privatised under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This happened under the influence of a group of Chilean economics that were known as “the Chicago Boys” because they had all studied at the University of Chicago under the economist Milton Friedman who is known for advocating a free market economic system with minimal intervention
  • In most countries comparable to Chile, the rights to water are much more regulated.

However, given the industry’s massive consumption of water, the prospect of lithium mining in the area worries members of the indigenous Colla community of Pai-Ote. The community has experienced several cases of severe drought in recent years, and nearby gold mines are already using much of the area’s water resources, community members claim.

“They want to extract lithium at all costs. For us, this is a sacred matter in the sense that we use those areas for grazing, our animals eat there, we make rituals and there are many ancestral archaeological sites there that we still use”, says Ercilia Araya, president of the Pai-Ote community.

Charged with water robbery

In the surrounding snowy mountains, burial sites of the Pai-Ote community’s native ancestors serve as ceremonial grounds. But while some of the areas are holy to the Colla people, the indigenous residents have very few formal property rights to their ancestral lands. And, as Chile is one of the few countries where water resources and water management are close to 100 percent privatized, the Pai-Ote community is at a disadvantage on that playing field too: on several occasions, Ercilia Araya has been investigated for “water robbery” on behalf of her community, when residents were suspected of tapping water from reservoirs that did not belong to them.

The prospect of more water rights going to mining companies therefore worries the community. And they are in a weak negotiating position, argues Ariel Leon, a lawyer and adviser to the Pai-Ote community and a member of the Assembly for Decolonization and Plurinationality (ASODEPLU).

  • Around 1,5 million indigenous peoples live in Chile today which equals around 9 percent of the country’s population
  • Chile’s indigenous peoples have traditionally been marginalised and persecuted by the state, and many groups have fought for greater autonomy.
  • Then Chilean president Salvador Allende introduced reforms to give back some land to indigenous groups in the 1970’s, but reforms were cancelled when the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet came to power. Pinochet subsequently privatized indigenous ancestral lands
  • After Pinochet was removed, different Chilean governments has kept promoting forestry concessions and energy infrastructure on indigenous territories.
  • As a result, recent years have seen numerous confrontations between indigenous groups and the Chilean authorities or mining and logging companies.

Sources: IWGIA, Journal of Latin American Studies

“It is very difficult for us to protest against the lithium extraction when we don’t even have the rights to our own land”, he says.

Violates the conventions

Chile has signed the International Labour Organization ILO’s Convention No.169, which obliges governments to consult indigenous peoples when major projects intervene in their environment. However, according to residents of Pai-Ote, they were not consulted before the lithium projects were presented in the media.

“We found out through the press that an agreement had been made that allowed SQM to extract from the Maricunga. No one asked the Colla people if they wanted mining in their territory”, says Ariel Leon.

“The Pai-Ote community has chosen their own way of development and have previously allowed some mining. But they would never had allowed mining that uses the water resources. That’s why we are protesting — the ILO Convention 169 was abused, and we weren’t consulted”, he adds.

Consultation should precede exploration

Besides SQM, Australian-Canadian miner Salar Blanco is moving ahead with plans to develop a lithium project with Chilean state-owned copper miner Codelco in the Maricunga salt flat. Construction is expected to begin in 2020 or early 2021, according to Codelco press statements.

Ercilia Araya claims that Pai-Ote community members have observed trucks from lithium companies in their area seemingly taking samples for exploration purposes.

Danwatch asked Birgitte Feiring, a former chief advisor on ILO’s programme to promote Convention No. 169, about this. She notes that she cannot comment on the Chilean case, but refers to article 15 of the convention, which explicitly states that affected indigenous peoples should be consulted before “undertaking or permitting any programmes for the exploration or exploitation” of “mineral or sub-surface resources”.

It is difficult for us to protest against the lithium extraction when we don’t even have the rights to our own land

Ariel Leon, advisor to the Pai-Ote community

“Here, the convention is very explicit: consultation should be practiced prior to exploitation as well as exploration,” she says.

In an email to Danwatch, SQM denies having initiated any exploration yet.

“If SQM decides to carry out any activity, it will initiate the corresponding procedures”, the mining company’s senior vice president for technology, communities and the environment, Alejandro Bucher, writes.

Storm over the Atacama. The world’s highest levels of UV irradiance have been measured in the desert – amongst other things as a result of the area’s high altitude and little humidity.

Codelco also denies having initiated any exploration yet, as the company still needs an environmental approval from Chilean authorities. However, it says it has contacted the Pai-Ote community on several occasions.

“In one opportunity we introduced to them the exploration project and we asked them for some information in order to include it in our environmental application”, Codelco writes in a corporate statement to Danwatch.

Despite numerous attempts, Danwatch has been unable to get a comment from Salar Blanco or from Australia’s Lithium Power International, which owns 50 percent of the company.

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