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South America’s ‘lithium triangle’ communities are being ‘sacrificed’ to save the planet

About 56 per cent of the world's identified lithium resources are found in the South American triangle, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS).
About 56 per cent of the world's identified lithium resources are found in the South American triangle, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS).   -   Copyright  AFP   -  
By Lottie Limb  & Martin Silva  with AFP

In South America’s ‘lithium triangle’, where pools of turquoise blue spangle the white salt flats, residents are yet to feel the benefits of the world’s new metal rush.

Lithium is a key component of the batteries used in electric cars. The "white gold" is found in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia in quantities larger than anywhere else on Earth.

As the world seeks to move away from fossil fuels, lithium production has skyrocketed in recent years. But at what cost to the communities near lithium plants, many of whom live in poverty?

We don't eat lithium, nor batteries. We do drink water.

"We don't eat lithium, nor batteries. We do drink water," said Veronica Chavez, 48, president of the Santuario de Tres Pozos Indigenous community near the town of Salinas Grandes in Argentina's lithium heartland.

Why is lithium so bad for the environment?

With around 2.2 million litres of water needed to produce one ton of lithium, the extractive industry is increasingly compromising the environment - and locals’ chance of a liveable future.

"No to lithium, yes to water and life,” reads a poster that meets visitors to Salinas Grandes.

Unlike in Australia - the world's top lithium producer that extracts the metal from rock - in South America it is derived from salars, or salt flats. Here, saltwater containing the metal is brought from underground briny lakes to the surface to evaporate.

But there are growing concerns about the impact on groundwater sources in regions already prone to extended droughts, with recent evidence of tree and flamingo die-offs.

How much is lithium worth?

Ivan Alvarado/REUTERS
An aerial view of the brine pools and processing areas of the SQM lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat, in the Atacama desert of northern Chile.Ivan Alvarado/REUTERS

About 56 percent of the world's 89 million tonnes of identified lithium resources are found in the South American triangle, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS).

The world average price rose from $5,700 (€5,730) per tonne in November 2020 to $60,500 (€60,780) in September this year.

Chile hosts the westernmost corner of the lithium triangle in its Atacama desert, which contributed 26 percent of global production in 2021, according to the USGS.

The country started lithium extraction in 1984 and has been a leader in the field partly because of low rainfall levels and high solar radiation that speeds up the evaporation process.

But Chilean law has made it difficult for companies to gain concessions from the government since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet declared the metal a "strategic resource" for its potential use in nuclear bombs.

Only two companies have permits to exploit the metal - Chile's SQM and American Albemarle, which pay up to 40 percent of their sales in tax.

In the first quarter of this year, lithium's contribution to the public coffers surpassed those of Chile's mainstay metal, copper, for the first time, according to government records.

Yet, the environmental costs are starting to stack up, and locals fear there is worse to come.

Lithium mining is hurting flamingos and trees in Chile

REUTERS/Cristian Ruddolffi
Lithium mining is forcing flamingos to flee the Atacama.REUTERS/Cristian Ruddolffi

This year, a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B found a link between lithium mining and a decline in two flamingo species in the Salar de Atacama.

"The development of technologies to slow climate change has been identified as a global imperative. Nonetheless, such 'green' technologies can potentially have negative impacts on biodiversity," said the study.

In 2013, an inspection at the SQM site - which reported using nearly 400,000 litres of water per hour in 2022 - found that a third of carob trees in the area had died.

A later study pointed to water scarcity as a possible cause.

"We want to know, for sure, what has been the real impact of the extraction of groundwater," said Claudia Perez, 49, a resident of the nearby San Pedro river valley.

She was not against lithium, said Perez, provided there are measures to "minimise the negative impact on people."

Argentinian communities fear they are being ‘sacrificed’ to save the planet

Across the Andes in Argentina, the salt lakes of Jujuy host the world's second-largest lithium resources along with the neighbouring provinces of Salta and Catamarca.

With few restrictions on extraction and a low tax of only three per cent, Argentina has become the world's fourth-biggest lithium producer from two mines.

With dozens of new projects in the works with the involvement of US, Chinese, French, South Korean and local companies, Argentina has said it hopes to exceed Chilean production by 2030.

But not everyone is sold on the idea.

The lithium companies say that they are going to save the planet. They may save the planet, but by sacrificing us.

"It is not, as they say, that they [lithium companies] are going to save the planet,” said Chavez, of Santuario de Tres Pozos in Jujuy province. ”Rather it is us who have to give our lives to save the planet.”

A neighbour, 47-year-old street food seller Barbara Quipildor added fiercely: "I want them to leave us alone, in peace. I don't want lithium... My concern is the future of my children's children."

Will Bolivian locals ever benefit from lithium mining

About 300 kilometres north of Jujuy, the salar of Uyuni in Bolivia holds more lithium than anywhere else - a quarter of global resources, according to the USGS.

Half of the residents in the region - which is also rich in silver and tin - live in poverty, household surveys show.

The country's former leftist president Evo Morales nationalised hydrocarbons and other resources such as lithium towards the start of his 2006-2019 mandate and vowed Bolivia would set the metal's global price.

AIZAR RALDES/AFP
Bolivian President Evo Morales holds up the first samples of lithium carbonate in 2009.AIZAR RALDES/AFP

In Rio Grande, a small town near the Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB) lithium plant, Morales' plans were met with excitement.

In 2014 Donny Ali, a lawyer now aged 34, opened a hotel with the expectation of an economic boom. 

He called it Lithium.

"We were expecting major industrial technological development and more than anything, better living conditions," he told AFP. "It didn't happen."

When the boat comes, "will lithium extraction benefit Bolivians?"

Hoping to boost the struggling lithium sector, the government opened it up to private hands in 2018, though domestic legislation has not yet denationalised the resource, and no private extraction has yet begun.

"Some think that Bolivia will 'miss the boat' of lithium," said economist Juan Carlos Zuleta. "I don’t think that’s going to happen."

The real question, he said, is: when the boat comes, "will lithium extraction benefit Bolivians?"

The three countries are now looking towards battery manufacturing - possibly even building electric cars - as a way to turn the natural lithium bounty into a modern-day industrial revolution.

"There is a concrete possibility for Latin America to become the next China," said Zuleta.

In the meantime, the Hotel Lithium stands empty.

Watch the video above to learn more about lithium production in South America.

Video editor • Hannah Brown