Business & Economy

Plans for lithium mining at Chile’s Maricunga salt flat spark water concerns

By Javier Martin and Sebastian Silva

Atacama Desert, Chile, Jun 30 (EFE).- Located in the heart of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, not far from the Argentine border and the 6,000-meter-high (19,670-foot-high) Ojos del Salado volcano, the Maricunga salt flat is one of that Andean nation’s many breathtakingly beautiful natural wonders.

A pristine space altered only by a dirt road that runs to the neighboring country, it is located at an altitude of about 4,000 meters and home to groups of guanacos, vicuñas, flamingos and condors.

An example of nature in its purest state, Maricunga also serves as a water source for small populations of Colla indigenous people who live from livestock raising and agriculture in surrounding ravines in one of the driest places on Earth.

These communities, however, now fear the country’s nationwide lithium fever – and particularly the extraction of that metal from mineralized groundwater, or brines – will destroy their way of life.

A geological survey published weeks ago by Chilean state copper giant Codelco said the Maricunga salt flat ranks second globally in lithium concentration, exceeded only by the nearby Atacama salt flat, which has been under development for years.

In 132 samples extracted from 10 wells and analyzed in a laboratory, the concentration of lithium ranges from between 517 and 1,787 milligrams per liter, or an average of 1,073 mg/l.


Pessimism now reigns among members of the Colla Pai Ote community, who for hundreds of years have inhabited the zone between the Atacama Desert and the Andes mountains.

Roughly 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the winding desert road that links various copper and gold mines with the central Chilean city of Curico, Miriam Rivera Bordones, spokesperson for the families of El Bolo in the northern commune (municipality) of Copiapo, is the face of the struggle that pits small indigenous communities against Chile’s powerful mining industry.

A phrase of hers captures the eternal dilemma between the capitalist logic of exploiting resources for present gain versus a focus on the long-term future.

“Water is much more valuable than lithium. That’s why we say that, if they come to exploit lithium, future generations will be the ones harmed and have to leave here because what are they going to do without water?” she asked rhetorically.

That unsustainable path has already been foreshadowed by the massive extractive activity of domestic and foreign copper and gold mining companies in the same region.

“What used to be Santa Rosa Lagoon, which was an immense lagoon, is a quarter the size of what it was. The same mining companies that have exploited it have been sucking the water out of it and it’s drying up, just like the San Francisco Lagoon. This is already happening,” she cautioned.


Biologists working in that area also warn that its great variety of flora and fauna will be at greater risk if the development of lithium – mainly used to make lithium-ion batteries for electric cars and mobile devices – continues apace, which judging by the road infrastructure in that area appears to be a decision set in stone.

For example, the Santa Rosa Lagoon, which is connected to the Maricunga salt flat, is home to one of the world’s most unique flamingo populations.

The survival of three species of that wading bird is threatened by water extraction by lithium mining firms in the Atacama Desert, according to a study by the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of sciences.



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