Centre for International Environmental Studies
10 March 2022

Lithium Mining in the Atacama Salt Flats and its Impacts

The struggles of Indigenous people in the Salar de Atacama, Chile.

 Interview with Marc Hufty ( Project Investigator ), Morgan Scoville-Simonds & Jonas Köppel at CIES

Marc HuftyMorganJonas Koppel portrait

You have recently published an article in the Extractive Industries and Society on the struggles of Indigenous peoples in the Salar de Atacama, Chile who are confronted with the impacts of lithium extraction. Lithium, Chile, indigenous people - how are these relevant at the current juncture?

Apart from being in the middle of a war and a pandemic, we are of course still in the middle of an ecological and a climate crisis. One of the main solutions to come forward at the international level, especially in the global North where we are most responsible for the accumulation of historical GHG emissions, is to transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. This does not mean "dematerialization" of course, it merely means switching from one set of materials to others, sourced from different social, political, and geographical contexts. In the case of lithium-ion batteries this means significantly increasing demand for very specific materials like nickel (the price of which recently spiked due to the Russian-Ukraine war), cobalt (linked to human rights abuses in DRC), and lithium, which is primarily sourced from the salt flats (salares) of South America, especially the Salar de Atacama in Chile. Most of these salt flats are in historical indigenous territories. That is, we cannot really speak of an energy transition in Europe without considering the shifts in material supply required, and the environmental, social, and political ramifications thereof. We are not saying that lithium shouldn't be extracted to support an energy transition, but we also can't pretend that it comes from nowhere.

Can you describe your main research questions and methodology?

Our goal with this article was to provide nuanced information about local perceptions on lithium mining in the Atacama salt flat. Atacama is an emblematic case that is often talked about in media articles or NGO campaigns, which tend to frame indigenous peoples as a singular actor with specific goals, interests, beliefs, etc. Usually, the selected voices that make it into these reports keep repeating themselves. We wanted to draw a more complex picture of different positions that co-exist within, and transform indigenous communities. Two colleagues spent several weeks in the region to conduct interviews about diverse ways of life in this place. We then framed these within historical context to make sense of the differences between individual stories.

What are your major findings?

That there is simply no singular indigenous subject of enunciation. People have different opinions and follow different strategies. This includes to claim their indigenous identity - and to construct this identity in different ways - when confronted with more powerful actors, such as governments and mining companies. This is why in the article we go as far as to question what "indigenous" means to begin with, drawing on research about indigeneity as a political category. But the point of such work is not to call into question, or delegitimize, indigenous positions. On the contrary, it is to make them more robust by drawing a more realistic picture of "indigenous peoples" in debates where they appear. Dealing with the material requirements of an energy transition will require taking indigenous voices seriously, which means also recognizing their diversity, and the constraints they face, living in the until-recently "forgotten" corners of the world where corporate interest in material extraction is now booming.

You also wrote a blog post for Lithium Worlds, “Mining Indigenous Territories – Agree to Disagree?”. What does agree to disagree mean in the context of your research?

The phrase is a way of describing this more realistic picture of indigenous positions. To agree to disagree opens up a space to accept differences with people you share a common project or identity. We think that this is crucial in the context of mining in indigenous territories. The mining industry often uses the rhetoric of "agreement" to gain legitimacy. The so-called social license to operate is a case in point. They consider that once an agreement is reached, the license is handed over, and the case closed. But the many social conflicts around mining clearly show that this is not how it works. Agreements are always contingent, temporary and partial. Given that, historically, both state and corporate promises (of job creation, economic growth, increased well-being) are often broken, it is no wonder that acceptance of mining activities is often met with contingency and circumspection. Apart from living up to its own promises, the industry needs to recognize that ongoing disagreement and renegotiation are inherent parts of agreements to better deal with conflicts. We hope that the form of a blog article, translated in English, Spanish and German, will be more accessible to people in the industry, and also to a broader public across the world.

How do these latest publications build upon the research of your ongoing Lithium research project?

The article is the result of a collaboration between Swiss and Latin American partners that started with the SNSF project LITHIUM several years ago. The project includes comparative research on lithium mining in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Covid disrupted our research plans but luckily we had already conducted fieldwork in Atacama and kept working on this particular case. This has given us enough time to really understand the issues, and think more carefully about how we want to write about them. Our collaborators in Latin America, Mauricio Lorca, who led this article, Manuel Olivera Andrade, and Melisa Escosteguy have been crucial in this work. We are now finishing up the Lithium project and moving on to a new project, Green Dealings, funded by the SNIS, which will continue to extend our international research collaborations and examine negotiation processes within Europe-Latin America relations in the context of the energy transition.


Read full article Mining indigenous territories: Consensus, tensions and ambivalences in the Salar de Atacama.

Read blog post Mining Indigenous Territories – Agree to disagree?


Photo by grebmot on Pixabay.