Energy transition, community fragmentation and territorial justice: an interview with Sonia Ramos

Renowned Chilean activist Sonia Ramos talks about the extraction of lithium from the unique ecosystem of the Atacama Salt Flat. Ramos stresses the deep changes mining is bringing to the territory and the Indigenous ‘cosmovision’ which interconnects nature, people and the elements.

Article, 17 April 2024
Head and shoulders photo of Sonia Ramos.

Sonia Ramos (SR) is a renowned environmental activist in Chile. A few years ago, along with Amelia Mamami, she walked 1,574 kilometres from San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago de Chile to defend the Tatio Geysers in the face of large-scale mining.

In a recent interview, Ramos explained: "We are paying the price [of the energy transition], our territory is paying... Europe or other countries will have electric cars at our expense, supposedly emitting no carbon... 

"We are not emitting carbon or harming the planet, we have survived for millennia protecting this desert ecosystem. Chile emits no more than 3% of the planet’s emissions, but we are the ones paying the consequences for others. That is what I call territorial injustice."

Q: What do you think about the benefit-sharing arrangements, such as royalty payments, provided by the companies operating in the Atacama Salt Flat?

SR: It is good that money flows into the region, but at what price? The price is the loss of the relationship with the territory and with nature, the social fragmentation of communities.

This involves a whole set of changes in the cosmovision of our territory. We are a whole, a totality; we are not fragmented parts. For us, nature represents a common good for everyone, not for individual persons or communities. Understanding this is difficult, the language I am speaking is hard to convey when the dominant language is economics. But economics for whom? Not for us.

What happens is an individualistic transformation of the communal into particular individuals. Negotiating an agreement or contract brings an external world of advisors, lawyers, engineers – a very special world that relates to each community individually. All this makes the territory more difficult to defend, especially for those of us who understand nature from the ancestral vision that our grandparents and great-grandparents have orally transmitted to us over millennia. This history comes orally because the official history is not written by us, it is written by power.

Q: How does this fragmentation impact communities?

SR: This fragmentation leads us to great division. There are those of us who are resolute about defending nature, and those who see themselves in this ‘modern’ era, which is the Western system, and globalisation, and all this apparatus that others know much better than us.

Yet, our territory and all of us are paying the price. The territory suffers from this fragmentation and is making its own resistance. We resist in order not to lose everything. We do not want to be migrants in the future, or to live in fear of running out of water.

We are in an arid desert. Environmental studies paint a pessimistic picture for the Atacama Salt Flat. The watershed is being affected in its entirety, not just one part. The salt flats represent the watershed as a whole, and there lies the great dispute over systems of knowledge.

We fragment the territory, the people, the environment and we also fragment time. The Western system says that it does not affect future life, but the present, with the exploitation and export of lithium. That view is held by the communities at this moment in their relationship with the companies operating in the Atacama Salt Flat – the agreement they have with Albemarle, the benefits they receive from the Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile.

So we land in a world of frustration, of poor mental health, which becomes a future expense for the state. When states do not consider ancestral memory, the impacts are social, environmental and cultural. These impacts create huge costs but the state does not have the capacity to monitor them.

A sign with the words "El desierto como cuerpo herido"

A sign in San Pedro de Atacama reads: ‘The desert as a wounded body’ (Photo: Lorenzo Cotula, IIED)

Q: What is your vision of what is happening to the ecosystem of the Atacama Salt Flat?

SR: While this fragmentation is happening, the salt flats and the future are drying up. Less water flows in the Punta Negra Salt Flat. Here in San Pedro de Atacama, we already see a decrease in water, at least groundwater, which is essential to create this oasis.

Subterranean irrigation must be maintained and, thanks to it, we have trees. We could have more pear trees, but pear trees do not have roots as deep as, for example, the carob tree, which can survive longer because it has very deep roots, reaching the water table. In contrast, pear trees are already disappearing with the decrease in water.

In the face of this fragmentation of human nature, of human vision, the intervention in the salt flat is impacting everything, in its entirety. Meanwhile, the Chilean Indigenous law speaks of one community negotiating with a company or another. The desert needs irrigation, it is not barren land, it is land that can be used for agriculture according to our culture.

For our cosmovision, water unites. Water expands the consciousness of desert people, like the Lickanantay people, because for us water is not a formula, it is not H2O. In our language, Kunza, water is ‘puri’: it is maternal irrigation, it is a being through which we extend our lives.

Q: How do you see the future, your future, your community’s future, and that of the Atacama Salt Flat?

SR: It would be great to be able to share with companies or specialists on the subject, to explain that here we have also worked for a form of development. Not only in the short term; the difference is how we do it looking toward the future, the long term, clearly understanding the capacity of our territory’s reliability. This is how ancestral legacy operates in the desert. It is built not only for our generation, it is also made with future generations in mind. That is the ancestral legacy that we manage from our genetic memory.

Today, this vision is missing in the Atacama Salt Flat. Everything is around the low-carbon energy transition in other continents without considering the future of ancestral territories. The territory responds to this reality with fragmentation, local climate change and water scarcity; atmospheric rivers, groundwater sources and rainfalls have decreased.

Here everything is connected, as the ecosystems are very fragile. We have three worlds: the one above, the intermediate or human, and the one below or the infra-world. These three worlds are related and make up an entire desert ecosystem.

This interview is part of a series on critical minerals, developed through a collaboration between IIED and the University of Valparaíso (Fondecyt 11220095 project).