Chile: Local population expresses concern over negative environmental impacts of lithium mining in the Atacama Desert

Author: BBC, Published on: 16 August 2019

“The farmers who worry about our phone batteries”, 15th August 2019

…Out of habit, Sara Plaza smiles when her photo is taken, but when she talks about what has happened to the land around her home, tears start to run down her face. "There used to be beautiful lagoons down there, with hundreds of flamingos," she says. "When they opened their wing, you'd see their pretty pink and black feathers. Now it's all dry and the birds have gone." Peine, the dusty village where she lives in northern Chile, sits on a hillside by the Salar de Atacama, an enormous 3,000 sq km (1,200 sq mile) salt flat in the driest desert on the planet…"It used to be so green, now it's just hard, cracked ground. We can't keep llamas anymore," she laments. Sara says that lithium mining on the Atacama is using up all the fresh water in the region's aquifers - layers of porous rock beneath the soil which act as stores of water…Chile is the world's second-largest producer after Australia, with an output of 16,000 tonnes last year, all from the Atacama. Valued at $949m (£785m) this was a 38% rise on 2017. There are currently just two companies mining lithium here - a US firm, Albemarle, and Chile's own SQM…

Both Albemarle and SQM do their own monitoring of the ground water. "We have the most advanced tools in the industry to monitor the health of the Salar de Atacama," says Eric Norris, Albemarle's president. All of Albemarle's measurements are available to the authorities and to local communities, he adds...Both companies have quotas for the amount of water they can extract each year. However, each has at times suggested the other is breaching those limits...Alejandro Bucher, SQM's vice president of environment, says his company is also committed to carrying out its operations in a sustainable manner...

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Related companies: Albemarle Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM)