“Investigating the ecologies of lithium extraction was one of the crucial aspects of our work. This section provides a visual overview of the impacts of lithium extraction in the Atacama.”

In the race for the ‘underground frontier’, the Atacama Desert is a unique planetary attractor. Due to its mineral riches, it has been dramatically impacted by the multiple cycles of mining that have ravaged the desert since colonisation, from silver and gold, to nitrates, copper and now lithium. With each mining boom comes new forms of land appropriation, new forms of environmental destruction, and new forms of violence towards the peoples and beings of the desert.

Spain colonised the Atacama desert region in 1600 in search of gold. After the wars for colonial independence, the Atacama region was subsumed within the states of Bolivia and Perú as a profitable nitrate exporting territory. The Atacama region only became part of Chile after the annexations resulting from the pacific war – a war waged for the control of nitrates. In the beginning of the 20th century, president Balmaceda tried to nationalise the nitrate extraction industry. This led to a civil war and his eventual suicide. Nitrate was later replaced by copper as the dominant extractive industry in Chile’s Atacama region. In the mid 20th century president Allende accomplished the nationalisation of copper extraction activities. In 1973, a coup d’état was organised by the military with the support from the CIA, concluding with Allende’s suicide, the installment of Augusto Pinochet and the genocide of more than 3000 people. Many of the victims were secretly disposed of in the desert. In the beginning of the 21st century, Chile’s focus on copper is being increasingly redirected towards lithium.

The Puna de Atacama, also commercially known as the Lithium Triangle, holds the majority of the world’s lithium reserves. The corners of the Lithium Triangle are marked by  three of the world’s largest salt flats: Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, Salar de Atacama in Chile, and Salar del Hombre Muerto in Argentina.

The brine in these salt flats is highly concentrated with lithium. This is a result of activity in the surrounding volcanoes of the Andes mountain range. Over millions of years, minerals accumulate in these peaks that descend with melting ice during the spring melt, leaching into the lower-level soils, and eventually settling in the depressions at the bottom of the salares.

The Salar de Atacama is crucial, both due its mineral reserves and its legal systems that make for competitive extractive conditions.  This is due to Chile’s long established history of mining, but also its colonial legacy of dispossession. Mining concessions are defined by the Exploitation Codes of 1932 and t 1983. Each rectangle on the drawing here represents either a concession, either for exploration or exploitation. At the centre of the drawing, we can see the solar evaporation ponds of SQM and of Albemarle, further South.

Governments and mining companies have historically described the desert as empty – despoblado (literally unpopulated) - occupied only by small groups of ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘primitive’ peoples. That such depictions and their explicit racism are aimed at easing the processes of land appropriation for the extraction of resources is abundantly clear. Other depictions portray the Atacama Desert as a desolate site that is home to unique geological and environmental curiosities, an aggressive and arid landscape not made for living, but better suited to explore what life on Mars would be like. The desert, of course, has always been the most exaggerated figure of the colonial-extractive gaze, a world described as inhuman, reduced to the role of resource provision.

The hyper-arid climatic conditions in the Lithium Triangle make it perfect for lithium-rich brine extraction. Lithium extraction entails pumping the salt rich brines from beneath the salar’s crust, into a series of large, shallow ponds. Brine is made of 34.7%% salt and 65.3% water. Initially containing 200 to +1,000 parts per million (ppm), the lithium brine solution is concentrated by solar evaporation to achieve a ratio of up to 6,000 ppm lithium after 12 – 16 months.

The Salar de Atacama benefits from higher evaporation rates than other corners of the triangle, which gives Chile a unique competitive advantage. The evaporation rate is assessed by agglomerating data on the evaporation velocity gradient as affected by terrain, temperature, precipitation, and sunlight hours.

Brine is rich in water while containing only traces of lithium. This means that on average, for each ton of lithium, 500,000 gallons of water are required. The impacts of extraction on the ecologies of the Salar result from its high demands for water but are supported by the uneven distribution of water rights. Copper and lithium corporations (Minera Escondida, Zaldivar, Albemarle, SQM) hold the majority of rights to extract water from the aquifer below the salt flat crust; facilitating rates of water pumping that overtake the recharge capacity of the aquifer. This scenario is unsustainable and does not even include the additional rights to brine extraction. Water is crucial to all mining operations, not only for material processing, for dust setting, and for drinking. These obscene rates of water extraction are taking place in the driest desert in the world, whose unique geo-climatic conditions give it a complex and delicate water cycle that has maintained a natural balance for thousands of years despite an extreme lack of precipitation. In the Atacama water is both rare and precious.

The atacama is a site of unique biodiversity, as is evident in the salt water lagoons that border the salar. However, these have also been impacted by water extraction, particularly in the salar’s southern side, close to the villages of Peine and Camar. Lagoons are home to multiple plant and animal species, as well as unique microorganism life. The lagoons receded between 50% and 30% from 1970 to 2010.

Salares in the Atacama are inhabited by 3 different species of Flamingo. The flamingo's diet consists of microscopic elements present in the bottom layer of the lagoons, as well as brine shrimp Artemia salinas, a crustacean also known as a sea-monkey. Their pink colour derives from the red pigments which are widely distributed in the flamingos’ prey items, including algae and brine shrimp. On their turn, algae and brine shrimp feed on bacteria and other microorganisms that produce these pigments. Microorganism diversity in the Atacama desert is a direct result of its mineral diversity.

The atacama is home to unique plant species that can survive its extremely dry environment and its high temperature variations between day and night. Trees such as Tamarugos and Algarrobos have deep roots able to reach the underground aquifers, drawing moisture from deep underground to combat evaporative pressure.

Others like the Cenar, are resistant to arsenic contamination from upstream volcanic areas.

Water extraction impacts local indigenous peoples and their traditional use of the salar’s borders over the summer as pasturelands for donkeys and llamas, as the greenery that bordered the salar has mostly disappeared. The ritual use of lagoons has equally been affected due to their disappearance.

Water is extracted not just in the salar, but also upstream, near the villages that surround it, showing the state and mining companies disregard for how these precarious settlements are very much dependent on the little water that trickles down from the top of the mountains. The Atacameño communities circumscribing the Salar hold an amount of water rights barely sufficient for their survival. Moreover, availability does not come from stable sources, but instead from small rivers and streams seasonally fed by snowmelt.

Water is crucial to the point that it is the main driver of urban form, the villages designed around the water distribution canals, for its terraced agriculture in the microclimates allowed by the quebradas (gorges).

Lithium is a chemical component used as psychopharmacology - entering the human body as a treatment for depression disorders. Its extraction, however, has the opposite effect. Depression and paranoia are typical aspects of mental ecologies in extractive zones. Mining corporations dispossess and plunder. Often, they pay-off community leaders and representatives, using money to exacerbate internal differences. As a result, community resistance frequently breaks down due to internal suspicions. It is not only the physical ecologies that get to be polluted and exploited by mining. Mental ones do too.