From the Origins to the Ends of Life on Earth

Caring for microorganisms in the salt desert[1]

[1] This text is the product of an ongoing collaboration between Godofredo Enes Pereira and the Lithium Triangle Research Studio at the Royal College of Art, London; lawyer and anthropologist Alonso Barros; and Fundación Desierto de Atacama, Chile.

The Origins of Life on Earth

The Salar de Llamara is a salt basin situated in the Tarapaca region of the Atacama Desert in Chile. It is one of the most singular environments on Earth. A salar is a water body covered by a hard crust of sedimentary rocks – evaporites - formed by the extreme evaporation and concentration of salt water due to the desert’s arid climate. In Llamara, this crust is interrupted by naturally forming springs, waterholes locally known as puquios (idiom taken from the Quechua language). Surrounded by low level vegetation, puquios give the impression of oases in an extraterrestrial landscape.

In this environment, there is a rare type of microorganisms that thrives. Classified as extremophiles (from Latin extremus, "extreme" and Greek philia "love"), these are microorganisms that are able to survive in the salar’s hypersaline environment, in the form of microbial layers located in the edges of the water holes. Mucus produced by one of these saline extremophiles, cyanobacteria, has been layered over time into laminated accretionary structures called stromatolites, considered to be the earth’s oldest fossil, and dating back to 3.5 billion years.[2] It was these microorganisms’ ability to breakdown hydrogen peroxide into oxygen and water, that according to scientists, led to the Great Oxidation Event, facilitating the propagation of multicellular life on Earth[3]. Because of this, extremophiles are key to studying the origins of life on this planet.[4]
Extremophile microbial ecosystems are extremely rare. They are defined as environments that have a stable or fluctuating exposure to one or more environmental factors, such as salinity, conductivity, desiccation, UV radiation, barometric pressure, pH or temperature. A shift in any of these would result in the death of the microorganisms. Today, the unique ecosystem of the Salar de Llamara is experiencing dramatic changes. The water that feeds into it artificially, is altering the chemistry of the puquios, and efforts to restore the situation, have caused drastic shifts to the balance of the ecosystem. The reason for this: resource extraction.


[2] Manuel Contreras; Maria Eugenia Farias. Guia para la Conservación y Seguimiento de Ecosistemas Microbianos Extremófilos. SEREMI de Medio Ambiente de Antofagasta, 2017.

[3] Ana Gutiérrez Preciado et al. ‘Functional shifts in microbial mats recapitulate early Earth metabolic transitions’ in Nature Ecology and Evolution 2, 1700–1708. 2018.

[4] Puri López-García. ‘Metabolic evolution in ancient microbial ecosystems’ in Nature Research Ecology and Evolution. 2018.


The Antofagasta and Tarapacá regions of Northern Chile have historically been places of intense mineral extraction. Since the last quarter of the 19th century, nitrate mining (saltpeter) was amongst the most profitable activities in the region. This was focused on the gypsum evaporate systems – caliche ore - where extremophiles are sometimes found.

During the 20th century, nitrate mining declined and was replaced by copper mining as the main export coming from the Atacama. But in the last decades of the 20th century, extraction companies returned to the region. Since 1993 SQM – Chemical and Mining Society of Chile - started operating in the vicinity of the Salar de Llamara, upon concession of the Chilean government. SQM mines caliche ore deposits, that exist exclusively in the north of Chile, as the only source of commercially exploitable natural nitrates in the world. Its industrial areas around and within the Salar de Llamara, occupy 199.2 km2, and include mine areas, production plants and evaporation ponds. SQM is the world's largest producer of potassium nitrate, iodine and lithium (the last one extracted from brines found further South, in the Salar de Atacama). SQM’s Sur Viejo facilities produce 11.000 t of Iodine, while 1.200.000 t of Nitrates are produced by the Nueva Victoria evaporation ponds. Until 2015, SQM’s chairman –now main shareholder was billionaire Julio Ponce Lerou, the ex-son in law of Dictator Augusto Pinochet, and often associated with government corruption, fraud and embezzlement.[5] Not only are SQM’s minerals used as fertilisers, medicine and a range of industrial uses worldwide, but thanks to lithium, they are also at the centre of the energy transition - in the case of lithium, for both small and large scale batteries. According to their website’s statement SQM provides 'solutions for human progress.'  


[5] See Manuel Salazar  Todo sobre Ponce Lerou, De yerno de.Pinochet a Millonario UQBAR Editores 2015


At the centre of SQM’s operations, as of every other form of mining, is water. In the case of the Atacama, its role is even more crucial, given how this is the driest desert on Earth, with very low average levels of rainfall. From 1997, SQM Nueva Victoria has been given the rights to extract waters from the Salar de Llamara. Water - or in the case of Llamara, brackish water, containing between 0-30 parts per thousand of salt -  is essential for mineral processing. After being dug out, the extracted ore is first heap leached. This is a process in which water is sprinkled over mountains of ore, to generate a leaching process whereby a solution of key chemical components slowly leaks down into containers. Thesesolutions are then moved to solar evaporation ponds – pools where water evaporates – so that salts with high nitrate concentrations crystallize, to be send for further refinement, into iodine and nitrate.[6] Mining activities have access to 224.7 l/s, extracted by 7 wells located across the Salar de Llamara. As reference, local indigenous communities like Huatacondo have the rights to between 2 and 17 l/s depending on the season.

Due to the indication in 2009 by the Chilean Dirección General de Aguas[7], that the salar ecosystem was being affected, in 2010 SQM started reinjecting extracted water. This was part of a plan to implement an “hydraulic barrier” halfway between extraction wells (further up and north of the saltpan), and the area of the water holes (to the south of the salar) and thus prevent the level of water in the puquios from dropping. The company built re-injection wells, but soon realised that the measure didn’t work, as the water table dropped steeply. SQM then decided to build eight new reinjection wells, without previous study nor due authorization, right alongside the puquios. Such superficial reduction of the salar to a water reservoir instead of a complex ecosystem was bound to have negative effects.

While the reinjection allowed the puquios to be refilled to their previous levels (and despite the surrounding water table level’s continuing drop), this led to an even worse problem: a change of chemical composition of the underground water, lowering the levels of saltiness required by Extremophiles, and leaving the natural balance of underground aquifers seriously compromised. The problem was not only water but what kind of water.

According to a recent report published by the Center for Applied Ecology, Chile, under the responsibility of Dr. María Eugenia Farías, the water conditions of the puquios in Salar de Llamara have been altered due to water reinjection.[8] There was an increase in chlorophylla, as well as of planktonic diversity.[9] In practicalterms, this means that as the water conditions are changing, the waters are being eutrophized, and the balance of this unique ecosystem is at risk.



[7] Dirección General de Aguas (DGA) is the Chilean government body that supervises water issues.

[8] Centro de Ecologia Aplicada. “Guia para la conservacion y seguimiento de Ecosistemas Microbiales Estremofilos”, as part of the project Analisis de Adaptacion al Cambio Climatico en Humedales Andinos. SEREMI Antofagasta, March, 2017.

[9] Ibid.

Legal Disputes

In 2012 the Salar became an “area of restriction” but to little avail.[10] After complaints by the Dirección General de Aguas and several local indigenous communities, in 2016, the Environmental Superintendency filed charges against SQM for lack of reporting the environmental data it collected, for tampering with water level measuring data and equipment, and more importantly, for having changed its reinjection wells unilaterally, without authorization or an Environmental Impact Assessment. In 2017, the First Environmental Tribunal ordered a stop to water extraction from the wells that SQM owns in the Salar de Llamara. As the minister and lawyer of the First Environmental Court, Mauricio Oviedo stated: “the decision is based not only on the finding of formal breaches of the RCA but also on the violation of Constitutional and International Law rules that put in charge of the State the protection of the environment and the conservation of the environmental heritage[11]”.

The statement is an important marker in the dispute. But while it is true that international law has been violated, both the ability and willingness of the state to properly operate as the main responsible for environmental protection, is something that in Chile, has been questioned for long, and for good reason. For example: the court soon received notice that because of the closure of the illegal reinjection wells, the water level of the puquioswas dropping by 5mm every day. In a context where a decrease in water tends to be symptomatic of environmental destruction, the court decided to re-allow the reinjection process, despite the Environmental Superintendency stating that for extremophiles (the object of protection), the drop in puquio water levels was actually better than reinjecting the wrong type of water. But for governments whose main concern is to demonstrate environmental credentials, more water and more green are always good.


10] “Areas of restriction” are hidrogeological sectors in which there is a risk of a considerable diminishment of the groundwater that is naturally contained, with subsequent harm to already existing third party water right holders. The Salar de Llamara was declared a restricted area on the 16 of January 2012 (Resolution N°5 of the DGA), on the basis of the data presented in Technical Report N° 517 of 22 de November 2011. It was decided that groundwater rights could be granted provisionally, up to a volume of 4.298.357 m3 per year. Also, according to Technical Report SDT Nº281 “Re-evaluation of Groundwater Hydric Resources in the Salar of Llamara", of September 2009 the total sustainable volume of the aquifer is 6.591.024 m3.

[11] ‘Tribunal Ambiental autoriza clausura temporal de pozos de SQM en el Salar de Llamara’, La tercera, 13th December 2017.


Indigenous peoples play a very important role in this region, in particular the Quechua Indigenous Community of Huatacondo, in whose territory the Salar de Llamara is largely situated. As a people Huatacondinos came into being together with this land: the desert, which might appear as a harsh and unwelcoming place for the most, was and still remains home for many peoples. While their main settlements are located high in the Andes pre-cordillera, traces of senderos(pathways) and geoglyphs (markings and drawings on hillsides) are scattered across the territory, together with smaller settlements, agricultural sites and stone refuges for pasturing. Amongst many archaeological findings in this region, some are thought to be almost 13000 years old, like Quebrada de Manì, which is considered to be the oldest settlement known so far north of Chile.

Huatacondo’s territory extends from the top of the cordillera, at the border with Bolivia, down to the Pacific coast. At its centre, the Salar, has been used since ancestral times by Atacameños, Aymaras and Quechuas to transit from the mountain range to the sea in search of guano for their crops, and in barter and trade. They even have an namesake puquio-  the Puquio de los Huatacondos - which, more than a water hole, is a site of pasture and overnight stay, a crucial marker in an ancestral territory – and an oasis where for thousands of years, generations of human, animal, vegetal and extremophile entities coexisted peacefully.

After the 1993 Indigenous Law came into force, Huatacondinos started a slow process of legal recognition and recovering of their ancestral lands. As of 2013, they enlisted the help of archaeologists from the Atacama Desert Foundation.[12] This is a matter of recovering ancestral lands in a desert mostly dedicated to resource extraction - or at least preventing further incursions – and through that, implementing forms of sustainable environmental management so that communities can subsist. Currently, any mining expansion process has to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment Study tothe Service of Environmental Assessment (SEA). Since 2009, due to the inception of Convention 169 of the ILO, informed prior government consultation with local communities is required in order to obtain an environmental (operational) license. It is mostly through related mechanisms of independent baseline construction and due diligence, that indigenous peoples today manage to protect their environment with some degree of success.

In recent years the community of Huatacondo has reported to the Superintendency for the Environment several violations carried out by SQM, that severely impacted the natural systems of the region. Huatacondo is fighting not only SQM, located downstream from its main settlement, but also upstream, the copper mines of Quebrada Blanca (Teck) and Collahuasi (Glencore, AngloAmerican, Mitsubishi), that both appropriate their waters and contaminate their environments. At stake for indigenous communities is the protection of incredibly fragile ecosystems, whose existence is deeply bound with the communities themselves, against the encroaching necropolitics of global mining corporations. And while national governments are typically the responsible entities for the protection of the environment, all across the world, indigenous peoples, such as Huatacondinos, believe they are better suited to that role, being as they tend to be, more able to establish integrated plans of environmental stewardship, knowledge exchange, monitoring and sustainable development.



The Ends of Life on Earth

The conflict around extremophiles in Salar de Llamara is paradigmatic of contemporary environmental disputes. While big-oil has been under pressure for many decades to ‘Keep It In the Ground’, companies such as SQM mine products for agriculture, medicine and renewable energies, that will remain crucial in most scenarios of global energy transition (if even these ever come to pass). This means that the pressure over territories as fragile as Salar de Llamara is only increasing. Not to mention that SQM’s more profitable product is lithium and it is very possible that it will start extracting it from the Llamara as well. Against this, resistance is essential, be it towards the incorporation of better standards and norms to regulate extraction, or where possible, towards blocking extraction tout court.

And in here, two key issues: the first, regards the necessary support for indigenous peoples in their seeking of territorial autonomy. This is not only recognizing the commonality of extractivism with the colonial project, but also a crucial step towards promoting more adequate forms of collective environmental care. From an indigenous perspective stewardships is not simply a matter of keeping things green and lush, but a matter of care for environments in their uniqueness, imbued as they are of ancestral rights and presence. The other crucial issue will be the ability of articulating environmental struggles with a critique of capitalism, especially with Chile’s neoliberal strand, long-promoted as a resounding success. While there is much to be hoped from the alliances in place between researchers and indigenous peoples, long-term success will only be achieved if broader alliances are established, able to implement a move away from extractivist models of development. For if the future of resource extraction is being debated in the forums of the energy transition, current ‘green new deals’ remain too dependent on capitalist modes of land appropriation, exploitation and plunder of resources.

In such context, the struggle for extremophile microbial ecosystems is a crucial marker. Requiring forms of environmental protection that do not disconnect discrete entities from their environments, the conflict around the Salar de Llamara makes evident the challenges facing environmental justice movements: to draw attention to the singularity of the beings and environments that populate the Earth, while countering forms of ‘protection’ that would detach them from the environmental relations that sustain them. And here the role of indigenous peoples is central. Through indigenous territorial knowledge practices, salares can be understood as caring devices for ‘extreme’ bacteria as well as for coexisting forms of life. Knowing more about extremophiles and caring for them, is a way of connecting the remotest past to a possible future, where these relict beings are left to thrive. In this way, the ‘tools of the oppressor’ in the form of classificatory modes of knowledge production, might be reverted to reclaim and exercise indigenous autonomies towards the rights of future generations. Looking at the strange and fragile beauty of the puquios, one cannot but think of the many peoples alongside which they coexisted for thousands of years, in the carefully fine-tuned form of indigenous collective care. And in contrast, of the uncaring destructive violence of capitalism.