SALAR DE ATACAMA, Chile — A country rarely gets a chance to assert its ideals as a nation and write a new constitution for itself. The climate and ecological crisis almost never play a central role.
This is in Chile, where, until now, a national rediscovery is underway. After months of protests over social and environmental grievances, 155 Chileans were chosen to write a new constitution amid what they had declared a “climate and ecological emergency.”
Their work will not only shape how this country of 19 million will be governed. It will also determine the future of lithium, a soft, shiny metal lurking in the salty waters beneath this vast ethereal desert next to the Andes.
Lithium is an essential component of batteries. Lithium demand and prices are rising as the global economy seeks alternatives to fossil fuels to slow climate change.
Chile, the second largest lithium producer in the world after Australia, is keen to increase production, as are mining companies and politicians who see mining as crucial to national welfare. However, they face growing opposition from Chileans, who argue that the country’s multi-economic model, based on the extraction of natural resources, imposes a very high environmental cost and does not benefit all citizens, including Indigenous people.
So it’s up to the Constitutional Convention to decide what kind of country Chile wants to be. Convention members will decide many things, including: How should mining be regulated and how much say should local communities have over mining? Should Chile maintain its presidential system? Should nature have rights? What about future generations?
In their discussion lies a global dilemma as to whether the world can solve the climate crisis without repeating past mistakes. “We have to assume that human activities are causing harm, so how much harm do we want to do?” said Cristina Dorador Ortiz, a microbiologist who studies the salt flats and was present at the Constitutional Convention. “What is enough damage to live well?”
Then there is water. Amid a crippling drought accelerated by climate change, the Convention will decide who owns Chile’s water. It will also focus on something more fundamental: What exactly? is is This?
Chile’s current constitution was written in 1980 by individuals carefully selected by its then military ruler, Augusto Pinochet. It opened the country to mining investments and allowed the trading of water rights.
Chile prospered by taking advantage of its natural wealth: copper and coal, salmon and avocado. But despite becoming one of the richest countries in Latin America, frustrations have risen with inequality. Mineral-rich areas have come to be known as “victim sites” of environmental degradation. The rivers began to dry up.
The outrage turned into massive protests starting in 2019. A national referendum was then held, in which a diverse panel was chosen to rewrite the constitution.
Another turning point came on December 19. Voters elected Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old former student activist, as president. He had campaigned to expand the social safety net, increase mining royalties and taxes, and create a national lithium company.
The morning after his victory, the stock price of the country’s largest lithium producer, Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile, or SQM, fell 15 percent.
One-fifth of the world’s lithium is produced by SQM, most of it in the Atacama Desert, in the shadow of ancient volcanoes, including Lascar, the oldest and still active. The Lickanantay, Indigenous people of the region, call Lascar the father of all volcanoes.
From above, the mine looks as if someone had spread a shimmering blue and green duvet in the middle of this pale desert.
Riches lie in the salty waters underground. Day and night, the SQM pumps out the salt water along with the fresh water from the five wells. Pipes carry salt water into a series of pools.
Then the sun goes to work.
Atacama has highest solar radiation levels around the world. Water evaporates surprisingly fast, leaving mineral deposits behind. Magnesium comes out of the pools. Also potassium. Lithium remains in a viscous yellow green pool, which SQM converts to powdered white lithium carbonate for battery manufacturers abroad.
SQM was a state owned company that produced fertilizer chemicals until Mr. Pinochet handed it over to his then-son-in-law. Julio Ponce Lerou, in 1983. More recently, it was fined by Chile’s stock market regulator and US Security and Exchange Commission On violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Mr. Ponce, no longer chairman, owns a 30 percent stake.
Today, SQM is driving a lithium bull market. Carlos Díaz, vice president of lithium, said the company aims to increase its capacity from 140,000 tons of lithium carbonate to 180,000 tons by 2022. Mr Díaz said the company wanted to “produce as much green lithium as possible”, including reducing brine extraction. Halve by 2030 and become “carbon neutral” by 2040.
There is good reason. Nearby was a copper mine called Escondida. $93 million fine to remove water and cause what a Chilean court calls “irreparable damage”.
The mining industry is preparing for change. It works through a legislature to increase copyrights. And the Constitutional Convention weighs provisions that may require further local decision-making.
The industry lobby, Joaquin Villarino, chairman of the Mining Council, said both could reduce Chile’s appeal to investors. He expressed particular concern that some of the convention’s members were totally opposed to mining, but he did not name any of them. “I hope that’s not what will be in our Constitution,” he said, “because Chile is a mining country.”
The contract is also likely to make water a public good. But there will be another question of even greater concern to the industry: Is saltwater—the saltwater below the desert—technically water? The mining companies claim that it is not, as it is not suitable for either human or animal consumption.
“There is a clear distinction between the continental water that comes from the mountain, that is, the salt water from the Salar de Atacama,” Mr. Díaz said.
Brine extraction is currently governed by the mining code. The new constitution could change that. It could be salt water.
Crisis on a Bright Lake
Not far from the SQM mine, a lagoon covered with bright white salt sparkles in the shadow of Lascar. Jordán Jofré Lique, a geologist working with the Atacama Indigenous Council, walks by its edge. A lone flamingo crosses the salt crust.
The bird is looking for food, especially the brine shrimp, and the lake is unusually dry this afternoon. Mr. Lique, 28, is not sure why. But this worries him. health wage (Salt flat in Spanish) constantly worries him, considering two great forces beyond his control: the warming of the planet and the mining industry extracting water here in one of the world’s driest regions. The flamingo gives up its search, spreads its pale pink wings and takes flight.
Mr. Lique, a Lickanantay man, knows the traces of the salt flat. His grandfather used to herd sheep and goats here.
Understand the Latest News on Climate Change
He was going to go to work at a mining company once. It was a way to a good salary. Instead, he found himself studying the effects of mining on his people’s lands. “Maybe it was an act of God or the circumstances of life,” he said.
Some Locals say mining companies are dividing their communities with money and job offers. Lique’s organization is shunned by some people, as it accepts research funds from Albemarle, an American company that mines lithium here.
His group has installed more than a dozen sensors to measure water levels, salinity, and temperature. He is particularly concerned about the “mixing zone,” a delicate ecosystem where freshwater coexists with saltwater underground. The bright pools of evaporation act as mirrors, which Mr. Lique suspects is heating the air.
Independent research found decreased soil moisture and evidence of a strong correlation between rising daytime temperatures, soil cover in the salt flat, expansion of lithium mining, and drying out of the region.
A government census has recorded a slight decline in the Andean flamingo population in Atacama since 1997, while their numbers have remained unchanged elsewhere in Chile. Alejandra Castro, a park ranger in charge of flamingo reserves, suspects climate change. “Every lake system is essential and must provide optimal water table levels to sustain the next generation of chicks,” said Ms. Castro.
SQM says its monitors show marginally decreasing saltwater levels in the mixing zone, and flora and fauna remain healthy.
Atacama is full of surprises. Its parts are so dry that the ground is sharp and steep, there is no vegetation. Then the landscape suddenly changes, giving way to a forest of ankle-high shrubs or tall tamarugo trees. A dirt road winds through bare ocher hills, suddenly dropping you into a valley carrying mountain spring water.
Mr. Lique sees the combined effects of climate change. At his family’s farm near the mine, the water evaporates more quickly. The rains are more severe. Not a clover plant has grown this year. Corn is short.
But Mr. Lique is concerned about how the extraction of so much salt water, especially in the midst of climate change, could alter the delicate balance of sun, soil and water. “The best-case scenario is that it doesn’t get any worse than that,” he said. “The worst case scenario is that everything dries up.”
Constitutional Convention member Dr. Dorador walks through a busy market in his hometown of Antofagasta. “The constitution is the most important law in the country,” he tells a mango seller.
He listens politely.
41-year-old Dr. Dorador talks about what the council is discussing – water, shelter, health care. He explains the timeline: a draft constitution by July, followed by a national vote.
Behind him, a man shouts the price of corn. Another is selling rabbits. A woman complains of shoulder pain. A few tell him they don’t have time.
Dr. Dorador became interested in microorganisms that have survived on the salt flats for millions of years. “We can learn a lot about climate change by studying it. salaries, because they are already excessive,” he said. “You can find clues from the past and also hints of the future.”
Dr. Dorador is vying to be president of congress. He wants the constitution to recognize that “humans are a part of nature.” When asked whether lithium extraction is necessary to move away from fossil fuel extraction, he gets harsh. Of course the world should stop burning oil and gas, he says, but not ignoring the yet unknown ecological costs. “Someone buys an electric car and it feels so good that they’re saving the planet,” he says. “At the same time, an entire ecosystem is being damaged. This is a great paradox.”
In fact, the questions facing this Convention are not just Chile’s problems. As the world faces climate change and loss of biodiversity amid rising social inequalities, it faces the same calculus: Does the quest for climate fixes require reexamining humanity’s relationship with nature?
Maisa Rojas, a climate scientist at the University of Chile, said: “We have to face the very complex problems of the 21st century,” he said. “Our institutions are not ready in many ways.”
John Bartlett contributed to the reporting.