Occurrence and uses
Lithium is the lightest metal in the world. Its relevance increased dramatically with the development of lithium- batteries, which are both much lighter than conventional nickel-batteries and longer-lasting. These batteries are used in electro cars, cameras, portable computers, mobile phones and many other devices. The main sources of lithium for the batteries are brine and salt lakes.
The main lithium reserves are located in the so-called “Lithium Triangle”, composed of Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The lithium extraction in Chile is located in the far north of the country, in the Salar de Atacama. The Atacama Desert is classified as one of the world’s most arid places.
The main producer of lithium in Chile is SQM that produces about 21,000 tons of lithium carbonate annually. The second lithium company is the North American Sociedad Chilena del Litio (SCL). Together, they produce 58% of the world’s lithium.
For the production of lithium the brine (groundwater with high concentrations of minerals) is abstracted and pumped into evaporation ponds. Through various evaporation steps it is possible to achieve the required concentration of lithium to get lithium carbonate, which is then further processed.
Impacts of lithium mining in the Chilean north
Lithium mining in the Salar de Atacama brings about substantial direct impacts on the water reserves. The extraction of brine from the groundwater causes the level of groundwater and of the salt plains to drop. The main reason for this is that the water evaporates in the ponds to increase the lithium concentration, without any measure to capture and re-inject it into the groundwater. Consequently, meadows and wetlands run the risk of drying out, directly affecting fragile habitats for nesting birdlife and for traditional pasture.
The trucks used for transporting materials within the mining area and to the processing plants cause air pollution. Another damaging aspect is the dust clouds created throughout the mining processes. This dust contains high levels of minerals, particularly lithium carbonate, which are carried towards settlements (eg the towns of Socaire and Peine), pasture areas and protected areas. The dust causes health problems and contamination of the soil and water.
As all the lithium plants are located in previously undisturbed natural areas, the increase of human activity in and around the plants (eg noise, construction of roads, traffic of vehicles, machines and personnel) increasingly affects ecosystems and biological corridors and is causing the extinction of indigenous plant and animal species as well as erosion.
From the social perspective, these lithium mines have provided work opportunities and a related improvement in the economic income of the regional population. However the type of work available for the local residents is mainly low-skilled. The most specialised work is main- ly available to migrants from other parts from Chile and other countries.
Another complex aspect of the social context refers to the use and ownership of the land. Traditionally the territory belonged to the Atacama people. In opposition to this view, the mining industry has extended into locations such as the Salar de Atacama, which hosts vulnerable biological and cultural diversities with irreplaceable environmental characteristics and of great value to local people.