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Foto: Research group Mining for the Energy Transition

Field research in Chile #2 | Forbidden to dance in San Pedro

Alicia Urios,
16 maart 2023 - 10:41

Students and professors of the UvA research group Mining for the Energy Transition are visiting the Atacama salt flats in Chile this spring, the place with the largest lithium reserves in the world. For Folia, several group members are reporting on their trip. This week: Alicia Urios (24), master’s student in International Development Studies. “San Pedro is a unique place.” Read the first part of this series here.

Alicia: “My research focuses on a Mutual Benefit Agreement signed by Albemarle (a US-based lithium mining company) and the Council of Atacameño People (Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños, or CPA), who represents 18 communities on and around the Atacama Salt Flat. Via this agreement, the company pledged to transfer 3,5% of its annual sale profits to the Council. There is little information about how this agreement is being implemented. How has it impacted the way these communities organise themselves? How has it shaped company-community relations? 

Why lithium?

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.

It has been more than two weeks since I arrived in San Pedro and upon arrival none of the other research students were here. My biggest challenge was to make contacts and to reach key informants within the local communities. I did not know where to start. I had already contacted some organisations by email but given the lack of response I was left with no other option but to find my way through local people. 


I was wandering around San Pedro when I saw a ceramics workshop. That is how I met Fernando Alfaro (75), an artist who has devoted more than forty years to preserving and promoting traditional art and culture in Chile and abroad. He was awarded National Traditional Art Prize and used to work as a professor at the University of Chile. He introduced me to the current lacksiri, an honorary position within the CPA, the first relevant interview I conducted, but most importantly, he was extremely welcoming.


On a Saturday evening Fernando invited me and a fellow student researcher, Marta Mora, to a local restaurant for dinner. That night, a renowned local folk music band was playing typical Andean songs. The place was full of locals; we were the only obvious outsiders in the room. After some asado (barbecue) and pisco-sours (cocktails) people were dancing and singing on the dance floor. I was tempted to dance on several occasions but I refrained myself from intruding the dance floor. Observing the scene from the table was interesting enough, especially given the “Footlose situation” in this town.


Apparently, dancing in public spaces is banned here – a measure for preventing the use of drugs or alcohol – and people can be fined for breaching this municipal law if caught by the police. Yet, any genre of music, and Andean folk music particularly, demands dancing. This is why the locals have developed a mechanism to avoid being caught by the local police. Whenever the police are close by, the owner of the place makes a sign to the band, who in turn begin to ask for water: ¡Agua, Agua! ¡Agua para los músicos!


Everyone seems to know what to do next. They all leave the dance floor immediately and sit down on their respective tables, until it is safe to dance again. I had never seen anything like that. San Pedro is indeed a unique place.”


Read episode 3 of our series Field research in Chile next week.

Foto: Alicia Urios
Fernando’s Workshop, located next to San Pedro’s main street.
Foto: Alicia Urios
“Ocarina”, pre-Columbian musical instrument. Fernando’s work.
Foto: Alicia Urios
Activism against the mining industry in San Pedro. Translation: the problem is not the lithium but those who profit from it.
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