Students and professors from the UvA research group Mining for the Energy Transition are visiting the Atacama salt flats in Chile, the site of the world’s largest lithium reserves, this spring. For Folia, several group members are reporting on their trip. This week Barbara Hogenboom, director of the Center for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA) and leader of the research group.
The culture shock comes upon return. I know this from other far-flung trips, but this time that feeling still comes in Chile, when I return to the capital Santiago after two weeks in the remote Atacama Desert. The urban high-rises, traffic and crowds of people are a great contrast to the low, mud houses, dusty dirt roads and silence in San Pedro and the other villages scattered among a few oases. In between, an endless wide landscape surrounded by volcanoes. And that it is so quiet is not surprising: the area is the size of half the Netherlands, but even counting the tourists and mine workers, there are probably only about 15,000 people.
The energy transition requires large amounts of raw materials. However, clean energy technologies require many more metals and minerals than working with fossil fuels such as oil and coal. As the demand for “cleaner” raw materials increases, social and environmental tensions arise where these raw materials are extracted. The same is true of lithium, a light metal used to produce batteries for electric vehicles and power grids. Demand for lithium is expected to continue to grow in the coming decades.
The Mining for the Energy Transition research project is interdisciplinary, looking at economic, environmental, technological, social, political and business aspects of the energy system, energy transition and sustainable goals. The research project is funded by ENLENS (Energy transition through the lens of Sustainable Developments Goals), one of the interfaculty research priority areas of the UvA.
Doing research as a group in this extraordinary setting of the world’s largest lithium reserves is fascinating and frustrating at the same time. In alternating groups we visit all kinds of places and agencies during the day and talk to a variety of people. In the evening, we are usually exhausted from the many impressions. Yet sometimes it feels like we are not getting much further than ‘scratching the surface’. However, the fact that only the two lithium companies have detailed information about what happens in the deep ground and water layers as a result of the industrial pumping of the lithium-containing brine is not only a problem for us. Local organizations, the municipality and concerned citizens are also struggling with this.
On our last day, we manage to speak to three employees of the indigenous umbrella organization CPA (see Alicia’s story in episode 2 of this series). With part of the income they receive through their agreement with a lithium company, they have recently set up their own environmental department to research the impacts of mining. This department is larger than that of the municipality, which has only existed since 1980 and has to serve this huge area with a limited staff. The absence of government here is a common complaint anyway. The lithium reform soon to be announced by progressive President Boric may well bring about a change. At the same time, other governments are also strengthening their relations in Atacama: on a visit to mining company Albemarle, we learn that the previous week European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager was a guest there.
The indigenous organization CPA is not under the impression that they can stop the lithium activities - and are also happy with the income and opportunities for the local people (see Sanne’s story in episode 3 of this series) - but they absolutely want to prevent permanent disruption of the water balance of this arid ecosystem. The only question is: how to find out if there is overexploitation and permanent damage? While there is still little knowledge about the long-term effects of pumping lithium-bearing water, the mining companies are not really releasing their measurement results, and the government is playing a passive role so far (see Paulien’s story in episode 4 of this series). For now, the local indigenous environmental department is also very cautious about sharing information with outside agencies like us.
What we do hear from all sides is that local social and political relations have shifted very quickly because of the strategic importance of this area for Chile and the rest of the world. Not only do the lithium companies contribute part of their income locally, there has recently been an initiative by the German car brands, for example, to help solve water problems here. With the arrival of larger interests and financial flows, divisions only seem to grow and there is a lot of desconfianza (distrust), even within the local community.
But even without knowing the exact ecological and social impact of mining lithium, it is clear that our energy transition is having negative consequences in countries like Chile. Julian’s research (see his story in the first installment of this series) shows that European policies are now focused primarily on securing and making the lithium supply more sustainable. But that is not enough: much more needs to be done to reduce our own ecological and therefore social footprint, and thus work on a transition in our development model. Hopefully, future ENLENS research projects will begin to address this as well.
This is the final installment in the series Field research in Chile, made possible in part by Mirko van Pampus, research assistant of the Mining for the Energy Transition research project.