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How the extraction of lithium in Chile is tearing communities apart


In northern Chile, lithium mining is booming. The metal is used for batteries in everything from cell phones to electric cars, and it's crucial for the transition away from fossil fuels. But as John Bartlett reports, it's tearing apart the communities who have lived on the land for millennia.

JOHN BARTLETT, BYLINE: From San Pedro de Atacama, a town in the Atacama Desert dominated by tour operators and firelit bars, red rock canyons and rugged fissures stretch out towards the brilliant white expanse of the Atacama salt flat. On the valley floor, a silent patchwork of emerald green and sapphire blue pools evaporate brine pumped from below the salt. The lithium carbonate residue is exported to be refined and used to make lithium batteries, which end up in everything from our smartphones to electric cars. But not everyone is as enthusiastic about this crucial part of the green transition.

Here in Socaire, a tiny town built on a hilltop about halfway down the salt flat from San Pedro de Atacama, nearly every house has a black flag, signaling resistance to the lithium mining and the agreements sought between the government and private companies.

JEANNETTE CRUZ: (Non-English language spoken).

BARTLETT: "The black flags mean that we're in mourning, that we are against all of the changes that are taking place today and the agreements being made without our input," says Jeanette Cruz, a teacher from Socaire.


BARTLETT: Along the eastern fringe of the Atacama salt flat, a string of tightknit communities survive on small-scale agriculture. The environmental and social consequences of the global boom in lithium demand are strikingly apparent here.

CRUZ: (Non-English language spoken).

BARTLETT: "In the time I've lived here, we have never seen impacts on the scale that the lithium industry is having," Jeanette told me.

CRUZ: (Non-English language spoken).

BARTLETT: She says that the once-reliable crops are failing, and animals are getting ill, meaning that their traditional ways of life are disappearing without a trace. The Chilean government has rolled out its national lithium strategy, meaning that production of the metal will be expanded and part nationalized. They even hope to extend existing mining contracts until the year 2060. Further down, at the far end of the salt flat, Peine, a small settlement home to around 400 people, sits proudly atop a hill, jutting out towards the salt. The community there has borne the brunt of the lithium industry's arrival. I followed Sara Plaza, 72, who has lived in the Atacama Desert her whole life, down to Tilopozo, where her community used to graze animals out on the plains. One of the lithium companies installed a pump on the wetland in the early 1980s, which she says has dried it up completely.

SARA PLAZA: (Non-English language spoken).

BARTLETT: "Over there is a pool where we used to swim," she told me, gesturing forlornly towards a rugged, dry crack in the salt flat. "People used to use it as a treatment. They said that it was good for knee and joint pains." Nobody grazes their animals here anymore, and the constant throb of a diesel generator disturbs the silence on the plains. More than half of the world's known lithium reserves are in northern Chile. An agreement with Chile's state development body, CORFO, shares out a proportion of lithium profits equally among the communities around the Atacama salt flat. But there is little consensus about what should be done with the proceeds of the lithium boom. Some of the communities around the salt flat have accepted direct compensation from the companies. Others are adamant that the damage being done is irreparable and cannot be offset by payments.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BARTLETT: Back in Peine, there are signs of the money which has arrived in the town. At the foot of the hill, on the verge of the salt flat, a pristine new artificial soccer pitch serves as a reminder. But for many, the issue is what will be left behind for the next generation. Among them is Sergio Cubillos, a Peine native who is keenly aware of how a boom-and-bust cycle could leave them entirely behind.

SERGIO CUBILLOS: (Non-English language spoken).

BARTLETT: "We could very easily disappear," Cubillos said with a sigh. "That's everybody's fear, I think, that we cease to exist, that we disappear entirely as a culture." These towns will never be like they used to be, but for many, the priority is at least guaranteeing a say in their own future.

For NPR News, I'm John Bartlett in Peine, Chile.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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John Bartlett
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