Worry in ‘Lithium Triangle’ about mining impact


Lithium operations such as this one, built by the U.S. company Livent in Argentina’s Catamarca province, pump brine found under salt flats into large shallow ponds for evaporation over a period of months or years. (Photo courtesy of CAEM)

Verónica Chávez is the elected president of Santuario de Tres Pozos, an Argentine Indigenous village of earthen houses, unpaved roads, and about 400 residents. Among Chávez’s greatest concerns these days are ongoing efforts to ramp up lithium mining in the nearby Salinas Grandes, one of dozens of large salt flats in the high Andean plateaus of northwestern Argentina and neighboring Bolivia and Chile. The ecoregion, known as the Puna, is too arid for large-scale crop farming, so Indigenous communities near Salinas Grandes and other salt flats engage in activities such as llama and sheep raising as well as artisanal salt production. But in recent years the Puna has sparked intense mining-industry interest thanks to the salt flats’ vast reserves of lithium—roughly half the world’s deposits of the highly reactive metal, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Because lithium-ion batteries are currently considered the most effective means of powering electric vehicles and of storing electricity generated by wind turbines and solar panels, lithium is seen as crucial to the world’s transition from fossil fuels. A 2021 UN report called lithium “the critical pillar in a fossil fuel-free economy,” and the International Energy Agency forecasts that global demand for the metal will grow 40-fold over the next 20 years. Small wonder, then, that as the move to electric vehicles and renewable power systems has gained velocity, so has the push to extract lithium from the salt flats of what has come to be called the “Lithium Triangle” of Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. The three countries’ identified lithium reserves amount to 21 million, 20 million and 11 million tons, respectively, or collectively 52 million of the 98 million tons identified worldwide, according to the USGS.

For 12 years, the Jujuy provincial government and various companies have been hoping to start industrial-scale lithium extraction in the Salinas Grandes, which straddle Jujuy, Salta and Catamarca provinces. Thus far no such operations have been developed there, though lithium production is occurring at two other Argentine locations—the Olaroz salt flats, also in Jujuy, and the Hombre Muerto salt flats, located in the provinces of Catamarca and Salta. Among the hurdles project developers have faced is opposition from local Indigenous community leaders such as Chávez. These leaders worry that large-scale lithium production will tax their communities’ scant water supplies, threaten their artisanal salt-extraction operations, and stunt a growing flow into the region of tourists eager to see the enormous, dazzlingly white salt-flat expanses.

For Chávez and many of her counterparts elsewhere in Argentina and in Chile and Bolivia, the goal of bolstering electric-battery technology does not appear to carry the same urgency as it does in other parts of the world. “Who is lithium for?”

Chávez asks. “It’s not for us, because our communities will never have electric cars.” To the contrary, she argues, her town of Santuario de Tres Pozos could see its income streams from salt and tourism curtailed. Says Chávez: “They say we’re going to save the world from climate change with lithium. But I believe something else: With lithium they’re going to destroy our territory so that rich countries can continue with their life of consumerism and luxury.”

That point of view, though not backed by the economic clout that electric car makers and their lithium suppliers can muster, does register politically in Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. In all three countries concerns expressed by Lithium Triangle communities are shared by many academics and civil society groups. But the governments of the three nations, all of them contending with economic crises, are eager to generate strong export earnings from lithium. They also are promoting a vision—unlikely to be realized in the immediate term, many experts say—of domestic manufacturing of lithium products such as electric-car batteries.

To tap lithium’s potential, they are proceeding in different ways. In Bolivia, development of lithium reserves has thus far been very much a government-run affair. Argentina, by contrast, has mostly promoted privately financed lithium projects. And Chile is taking a middle path stressing public-private partnerships.

Those criticizing these efforts point primarily to the environmental impacts of lithium operations, which involve pumping lithium-bearing brine from beneath salt flats into large, shallow ponds for evaporation over months or years. The process creates large volumes of mineral waste, worsens air quality, and cuts into water supplies that help sustain the local ecosystem and communities, consuming about 500,000 liters of water for every metric ton of lithium extracted, scientists say.

Another complaint concerns a lack of value-added economic activity if, as is the case currently, lithium is simply mined and exported as a raw material for battery makers abroad. Many argue that without domestic follow-on processing and manufacturing, lithium’s economic benefits will be far outweighed by the environmental impacts of its extraction. Such questions took center stage on April 20, when Chilean President Gabriel Boric made a nationally broadcast presentation of his government’s National Lithium Strategy.

“The challenge is for our country to become the world’s principal lithium producer, increasing and equitably distributing its development and wealth while at the same time protecting the biodiversity of the salt flats,” he said. Boric, who took office in March 2022 with the goal of creating what he called Chile’s first “ecological government,” said lithium production offers “the best chance we have to transition to a sustainable and developed economy.” He added: “We cannot afford to waste it.”

Though Chile ranks third in South America in identified lithium reserves, it is currently the region’s top producer, last year extracting 39,000 tons and bringing in US$9 billion in lithium-export earnings. Globally, Chile ranks second in lithium production behind Australia, which last year produced 61,000 tons. Experts see promise in South American lithium prospects in part because extracting the metal from salt-desert brine is not as costly as the hard-rock mining and refining required in the case of Australian lithium. And there is room for growth. Chilean lithium comes solely from the Salar de Atacama, the country’s largest salt flat, where two private companies are extracting the metal there under government concessions, one of which lasts until 2030 and the other until 2043.

In his April 20 presentation, Boric said his administration would promote lithium production in additional salt flats, but with greater participation on the part of the government. Specifically, he said, private companies interested in tapping the country’s lithium reserves will have to partner with a yet-to-be-formed national lithium company. Regarding potential environmental impacts, Boric said the government will “promote the use of new technologies that minimize ecosystem impacts,” and will create a network of protected salt flats where industrial activity will not be allowed.

The president announced that an Antofagasta-based entity, the Institute for Public Technology and Research of Lithium and Salt Flats, will be created in 2024 to enable these steps. He also pledged that his government would push for Chilean manufacture of “value-added lithium products” so the country can achieve “lasting and more complex development.”

Bolivia is taking a more statist approach, having set up a government-run company, Bolivian Lithium Deposits (YLB), to control all aspects of lithium production. “Lithium belongs to Bolivians,” Bolivian President Luis Arce said in January. “It is our natural resource, our strategic horizon, and it must be defended.”

Though YLB was established in 2017, Bolivia has produced practically no lithium—just 400 tons last year, according to government figures. That, experts say, is because the state company has not developed the appropriate technology. To address that bottleneck, YLB in January partnered with a consortium of Chinese companies. The consortium promised to invest US$1 billion in the development of lithium operations in the departments of Potosí and Oruro pending the results of feasibility studies now underway. In April President Arce pledged that by 2026, Bolivia would begin exporting lithium-based batteries. His administration insists that despite the Chinese participation, the country’s lithium deposits will remain the property of the Bolivian state.

“Everything has been very complicated in Bolivia because the government hasn’t wanted to partner with academic institutions to ensure the success of technology needed for [lithium] extraction,” says Gonzalo Mondaca, a researcher with the nonprofit Bolivian Center for Documentation and Information (Cedib), a nonprofit social- and environmental-policy think tank. “In 2008, a scientific committee was created; but in 2011, the government eliminated it. There also have been problems with organizations of farmers and Indigenous communities that live near the [salt flat] areas and demand to participate.” Adds Mondaca: “And of course there have been obstacles in bringing foreign companies into the process given Bolivian legislation declaring lithium a strategic resource owned by the state.”

Mexico, which is estimated to have 1.7 million tons of lithium reserves—thus far untapped—appears to be going down a path of state control similar to Bolivia’s. In February, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced the nationalization of lithium “so foreigners can’t exploit it.”

Argentina, for its part, ranks fourth in lithium production behind Australia, Chile, and China. Its two current lithium operations produced 6,200 tons and US$696 million in export earnings last year, according to government figures. That production is expected to grow strongly in the coming years given a large influx of foreign investment that has resulted in a total of 36 projects in different stages of study, planning and development, according to Argentina’s Mining Secretariat. Of those projects, 33 are Canadian, Australian, and Chinese.

YPF weighing in

The Argentine state oil company YPF also has entered the fray. It has launched a lithium-exploration project in the province of Catamarca and has built a pilot plant for lithium-ion battery production in the province of Santiago del Estero in partnership with the National Scientific and Technical Research Council. Known by its Spanish acronym, Conicet, the council is a national government agency that coordinates scientific and technical research done in Argentine institutes and universities.

Claims that lithium will become a strong source of sustainable development are met with skepticism from some experts, among them Ariel Slipak, an economist with the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN), an Argentine environmental group. “Lithium is produced in Chile and Argentina for the batteries of luxury electric cars being driven in China or Europe with a seal saying they are decarbonizing the planet.” he says. “That is an enormous injustice for the Global South.

Pointing to Puna-region Indigenous communities near salt flats, he adds: “Today they are paying for the energy transition of other countries with displacement and violations of their rights to prior consultation. The highly intense water consumption associated with lithium mining on salt flats is contrary to their way of life. As it is mined today, lithium is big business for companies but is not an engine of development for local populations.”

Under the Argentine Constitution, natural resources belong to the provinces, not to the national state. So the nation’s provinces oversee permitting of private mineral and hydrocarbon exploration and mining projects. But the royalties that provinces receive from such projects are established under a 1993 national law that sets these royalties at 3% of the value of the extracted material. Experts say that this rate is far lower than royalty charges in Chile.

Province vs. province

For researcher Martina Gamba, Argentina must forge a national strategy that overarches province-by-province approaches. “Today the provinces are competing with each other to see which one can offer big foreign companies the most flexible environmental regulations and the most advantageous conditions for lithium exploration,” says Gamba, an investigator at the Center for Mineral Resources and Ceramic Technology (Cetmic) in La Plata, Argentina. “We have an energy transition underway in the countries of the [Global] North that, to replace fossil fuels, requires a large quantity of lithium and other minerals, which triggers a multiplication of mining in the Global South with enormous socio-environmental impacts.”

Last year Gamba took part in an inter-university forum of 400 lithium specialists who eventually issued a public call for the creation of a public lithium enterprise charged with ensuring the nascent industry safeguards the environment and community rights.

One question capturing increasing attention is whether an alternative means of lithium extraction from brine known as Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) is feasible. In February, four Argentine and one French expert published an article in the journal Nature examining DLE technology, which involves far less evaporation. The researchers concluded that DLE is not ready to be used at scale because there is a lack of information on its effectiveness. Urging more research, they wrote: “Ideally, DLE should completely avoid brine evaporation in ponds and thereby have a lower water footprint than evaporative technology.”

Cristina Dorador, a biologist and Atacama salt flat expert at Chile’s Antofagasta University, agrees. She also sees an urgent need for consciousness-raising: “Some people believe that by buying an electric car they are saving the world from climate change, but they have no idea of the environmental and social cost that lithium extraction is causing today ... We know lithium is necessary for the energy transition, but the question is in what quantity?”

- Daniel Gutman

In the index: One concern about lithium operations is the impact their water-intensive process can have on the arid ecosystems surrounding them. (Photos by Alicia Chalabe and Wara Vargas/CEDIB)

Verónica Chávez
Santuario de Tres Pozos
Jujuy, Argentina
Tel: +(54 9388) 488-1734
Cristina Dorador
Biotechnology Professor
University of Antofagasta
Antofagasta, Chile
Tel: +(56 55) 263-7455
Martina Gamba
Center for Mineral Resources and Ceramic Technology (Cetmic)
La Plata, Argentina
Tel: +(54 221) 484-0167
Gonzalo Mondaca
Specialist in water, lithium, and governance
Bolivian Center for Documentation and Information (Cedib)
Cochabamba, Bolivia
Tel: +(591) 7698-8257
Ariel Slipak
Research Coordinator
Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN)
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel: +(54 11) 4865-1707