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Lithium in Chile, one more aspect of bad development
Tue, 02/20/2024 - 08:30

Pamela Poo

Pame Poo foto Linekdin
Pamela Poo

Directora de políticas públicas e incidencia política de la Fundación Ecosur.

The intensity of the climate and ecological crisis is increasingly evident. Scorching heat waves, relentless droughts, devastating floods, extreme polar events and wildfires, among other climate events, result from economic activities such as deforestation, mineral overexploitation and the expansion of agribusiness. These phenomena keep humanity in a state of constant concern, given the alarming prospect that is looming if the increase in the planet's global temperature continues.

Excessive consumption, mainly from the richest countries on the planet and supported by States that do not promote ambitious measures against it, is a cause of all this destruction. It is because of this lack of action that we are close to the turning point, a product of inertia and the lack of political will to move forward and implement measures that respect planetary limits and dismantle bad development, based on an infinite economic logic centered on a anthropocentrism and utilitarianism of nature that fails to satisfy the demands of an economic system that persists in its destructive desire.

Given the scenario described, Chile was perceived as a hope, when the recently arrived government of Gabriel Boric presented itself as an ecological government. One of its slogans – “if Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its tomb” – proposed a story that advocated a different way of doing things and relating to nature. Unfortunately, almost two years later, little remains of that motto. In fact, the deepening of extractivism and intensive activities throughout the country are the order of the day, lithium being a prominent example of this trend.

Currently, the exploitation of this mineral and related proposals do not address the previously described scenarios. Government policy regarding lithium seeks to expand the extractive frontier of this mineral. Although studies on the salt flats are proposed in the new government strategy on lithium, these should precede any exploitation decision. Furthermore, the use of new technologies is promoted, but, regardless of the proposal, the real sustainability of these ecosystems is not guaranteed, given their fragility.

Ultimately, the priority is extraction; In fact, of the approximately 60 salt flats in Chile, only 30% are set aside for protection, and many of the remaining are targets for exploitation. It is a totally regressive environmental measure and it is worth asking: Which salt flat deserves to be conserved and which does not? Who can really play god? The truth is that, given the magnitude of the climate and ecological crisis, we cannot do without any ecosystem, our lives depend on it and continuing on this path only means advancing in poor development.

On the other hand, the lithium policy of the Boric government in Chile considered social, environmental and economic elements by creating a research institute on salt flats and establishing a dialogue with NGOs and experts, among other measures. But these advances have been put aside after the signing in December 2023 of the memorandum of understanding between the state company Codelco and the mining conglomerate SQM that contemplates the joint extraction of lithium in the Salar de Atacama. The memorandum is framed in the extractive logic of the 20th century, with long-term partnerships, without considering the climate and socioeconomic crises or addressing an ethical perspective. Indigenous communities, for example, claim to have not been consulted about the initiative.

Involving SQM, which has a history of irregular financing, contradicts the supposed transformation of the government in the management of these resources, and of politics in general. Furthermore, by being signed by private entities, the memorandum ignores a key element of lithium policy, which originally sought to establish a national mineral company, and for the State to have a stronger role. In this new agreement, the private company, SQM, not only maintains the exclusive rights to exploit the salt flat until 2030, but is also expected to double extraction from 2031 to 2060. This expansion will have a significant impact on the dynamics between the salt flat and the species that inhabit it.

Today, there are competing narratives and global pressures around lithium and other minerals. The green capitalism strategy seeks to position a new narrative, focused on reducing emissions, without modifying consumption in the global north. This places additional pressure on the natural resources of the global south, without respecting planetary boundaries. The new narrative imposes on us the idea that we must cooperate to save the world individually, although this reality is far from authentic. The ecological crisis intensifies the climate crisis, and without changes in consumption patterns, technological renewal will not achieve a genuine transition.

The imperative of technological change is undeniable, but the strategy cannot be at any cost. Currently, the logic of selling to the highest bidder prevails, without real commitments that improve the scenarios; On the contrary, we face an increasingly challenging and scarcity-prone world. If the 20th century was marked by abundance, the 21st century seems to be heading inexorably towards scarcity.

Without changes in consumption patterns, technological renewal will not achieve a genuine transition

It is important to note that the elimination of mining is not advocated, a clarification that I make frequently. What I propose is simply that the current mining frontier, which is already considerable, not be expanded. Mining must adopt an ecosystem and generational perspective. In the case of lithium, the salt flats and the species that inhabit them have the fundamental right to exist, just as future generations have the right to know and enjoy these ecosystems.

Finally, it is essential to advance economic measures that promote nature-based solutions, such as forestry and regenerative agriculture, adaptation and resilience. Considering these aspects is crucial if we aspire to turn around poor development and build a more sustainable future.