Photographs by Marcos Zegers
Ms. Sengupta reported from lithium-rich salt flats in Chile.
- Published Dec. 28, 2021
SALAR DE ATACAMA, Chile — Rarely does a country get a chance to lay out its ideals as a nation and write a new constitution for itself. Almost never does the climate and ecological crisis play a central role.
That is, until now, in Chile, where a national reinvention is underway. After months of protests over social and environmental grievances, 155 Chileans have been elected to write a new constitution amid what they have declared a “climate and ecological emergency.”
Their work will not only shape how this country of 19 million is governed. It will also determine the future of a soft, lustrous metal, lithium, lurking in the salt waters beneath this vast ethereal desert beside the Andes Mountains.
Lithium is an essential component of batteries. And as the global economy seeks alternatives to fossil fuels to slow down climate change, lithium demand — and prices — are soaring.
Mining companies in Chile, the world’s second-largest lithium producer after Australia, are keen to increase production, as are politicians who see mining as crucial to national prosperity. They face mounting opposition, though, from Chileans who argue that the country’s very economic model, based on extraction of natural resources, has exacted too high an environmental cost and failed to spread the benefits to all citizens, including its Indigenous people.Climate Fwd There’s an ongoing crisis — and tons of news. Our newsletter keeps you up to date. Get it sent to your inbox.
And so, it falls 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 what voice should local communities have over mining? Should Chile retain a presidential system? Should nature have rights? How about future generations?
Around the world, nations face similar dilemmas — in the forests of central Africa, in Native American territories in the United States — as they try to tackle the climate crisis without repeating past mistakes. For Chile, the issue now stands to shape the national charter. “We have to assume that human activity causes damage, so how much damage do we want to cause?” said Cristina Dorador Ortiz, a microbiologist who studies the salt flats and is in the Constitutional Convention. “What is enough damage to live well?”
Then there’s water. Amid a crippling drought supercharged by climate change, the Convention will decide who owns Chile’s water. It will also weigh something more basic: What exactly is water?
Chile’s current constitution was written in 1980, by people handpicked by its then military ruler, Augusto Pinochet. It opened the country to mining investments and allowed water rights to be bought and sold.
Chile prospered by exploiting its natural riches: copper and coal, salmon and avocados. But even as it became one of Latin America’s richest nations, frustrations mounted over inequality. Mineral-rich areas became known as “sacrifice zones” of environmental degradation. Rivers began drying up.
Anger boiled over into huge protests starting in 2019. A national referendum followed, electing a diverse panel to rewrite the constitution.
On Dec. 19 came another turning point. 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 biggest lithium producer, Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile, or SQM, fell 15 percent.
The Father of Volcanoes
One fifth of the world’s lithium is produced by SQM, most of it in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile in the shadow of ancient volcanoes, including the oldest and still-active one, Lascar. The Lickanantay, the area’s Indigenous people, call Lascar the father of all volcanoes.
From above, the mine looks as though someone has spread a glistening blue and green quilt in the middle of this pale desert.
The riches lie in the brine underground. Day and night, SQM pumps out the brine, along with freshwater from five wells. Pipes carry brine to a series of ponds.
Then, the sun goes to work.
The Atacama has the highest solar radiation levels on Earth. Water evaporates astonishingly fast, leaving mineral deposits behind. Magnesium comes out of the ponds. Also potassium. Lithium remains in a viscous yellow green pool, which SQM converts into powdery white lithium carbonate for battery makers abroad.
SQM was a state-owned maker of fertilizer chemicals until Mr. Pinochet turned it over to his then son-in-law, Julio Ponce Lerou, in 1983. More recently, it has been fined by Chile’s stock market regulator and by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissionover violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Mr. Ponce, no longer chairman, retains 30 percent ownership.
Today, SQM is riding a lithium bull market. Carlos Díaz, its vice president for lithium, said the company is seeking to increase capacity from 140,000 tons of lithium carbonate to 180,000 tons by 2022. Mr. Díaz said the firm wants to “produce lithium as green as possible,” including by reducing saltwater extraction by half by 2030 and by becoming “carbon neutral” by 2040.