A just energy transition needs more than benefit-sharing: a view from the Atacama Salt Flat

The global narrative about the low-carbon energy transition focuses on climate mitigation and adaptation. However, extracting the critical minerals to power the so-called ‘green economy’ would affect local communities in the global South; their situation and views are rarely considered.

Nicolás M. Perrone's picture
Professor of economic law and director at the School of Law, University of Valparaíso, Chile
09 April 2024
A poster depicting the environmental and social costs of mineral extraction.

A poster depicting the environmental and social costs of mineral extraction as perceived by local activists (Photo: Nicolás M. Perrone)

Global narratives about the energy transition place all humanity in the same boat, with common but differentiated responsibilities towards a mutually shared goal: avoiding a climate catastrophe. However, some communities at the grassroots find it difficult to accept this narrative. 

Take Chile’s Atacama region. Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of lithium, second only to Australia, and all its lithium comes from one place: the Atacama Salt Flat. 

This region makes a significant contribution to the low-carbon energy transition – 30% of world production of lithium comes from Atacama – taking us closer to meeting the Paris Agreement objectives. But Atacama and its people bear most of the costs and risks involved in producing that lithium.

Global consumers, local lives

To power our low-carbon economy, multinational corporations, governments and consumers expect to exploit valuable resources like lithium from the global South. But what about the communities living in Atacama and other regions who have rights to that land? 

In the case of the Atacama Salt Flat, the local community affected is the Lickanantay people – an indigenous group living in areas of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, who along with other Indigenous Peoples, are some of the poorest people in Chile. Their traditional livelihood is based on agriculture and livestock herding.

Lickanantay leaders question dominant thinking about the transition to a low-carbon economy. While the world is looking for places like Atacama to extract critical minerals, they fear that fuelling this transition will destroy their culture and environment. 

Although the lithium rush may bring some short-term income, they also anticipate potential threats to their environment and livelihoods ahead. The Lickanantay’s way of life precedes Western consumerism by centuries, and they know that they have contributed little if anything to climate change.

Yet, their leaders have found opposition is fruitless in the face of powerful corporate and geopolitical interests. Resistance was an option a decade ago, when young leaders created the Observatorio Plurinacional de Salares Andinos (OPSAL). They organised campaigns, gave interviews to global TV networks, and travelled the world denouncing the situation. 

But this didn’t stop the mining, and the Lickanantay people still have no drinking water, no schools and no hospitals. While business as usual continued, they realised the futility of continuing resistance.

Demanding financial recompense and participation

Instead of opposing the production of lithium, the Lickanantay people decided to make three demands to the corporations: a fair share of the benefits; assurances regarding the environmental impact; and shared participation in the operations. When they were accused by environmental activists of giving up on nature, Lickanantay leaders responded that the Chilean state has abandoned them for decades. They don’t want to suffer the same fate as other communities by ending up displaced by force.

The North of Chile is often called ‘Chile’s salary’, as the copper and lithium produced there represent a large share of the GDP, around 12%, which historically is cashed in by Chile’s elites and spent in the capital city.

Essentially the Lickanantay are asking to be treated the same as investors. Companies are only willing to bring capital and technology to Atacama for a price, and under good investment conditions. The Lickanantay are looking for a similar deal if they give up their land. 

But such a deal comes with significant risk and uncertainty due to the lack of information about the social and environmental impact of the mining operations on the Atacama Salt Flat. They are demanding that the government and investors mitigate potential environmental damage, and want assurances that that their contribution will be properly remunerated.

After almost a decade of complex negotiations, the Lickanantay have obtained some concessions and continue demanding others. One of the companies operating on the Salt Flat, Albermarle Corporation, agreed to give 3.5% of the total sales of lithium to the council of Atacama’s communities, which can be used for social and investment programmes. 

The other company, Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile, is not making a direct financial contribution, but offers the community various social welfare projects. The two companies and indigenous communities have also set up research stations to monitor the local ecosystem and environment of the Atacama Salt Flat.

Money brings tensions and division

But the financial and community schemes come with their downsides. The sudden flow of millions of US dollars into the Lickanantay community has created divisions within it. To benefit from these funds, individuals need to be registered members of an ‘Indigenous community’ – registration is delegated to each community based on Chilean Indigenous Law (Ley Indígena). 

This situation has led to tensions around the criteria used to incorporate new members. As a result, many local leaders and other community members believe these changes have triggered a process of community fragmentation. Some community leaders are being accused of enriching themselves, others of working as contractors for the firms. 

Critics claim that these divisions are weakening communities, benefiting investors and the state. Meanwhile, environmental and culture activists fear that these new sources of money could lower environmental expectations.

Moving towards a just transition?

Whether investors and the Chilean government accept the demands of local participation in the operation remains to be seen. So far, the Lickanantay have not managed to gain any control over the mining projects. However, from the experience so far, it is unclear whether participation would bring the community together, protecting a culture that sees nature and people as one indivisible entity. 

This example demonstrates how the global transition away from fossil fuels needs to take seriously the perspectives of local communities like the Lickanantay. 

How can we address the needs of local communities whose way of life and survival depends on protecting their environment and culture? Above all, we need to find ways for local people to come together with other stakeholders, and have a greater say in the design, operation and negotiation of extractive projects that take place on historically indigenous territory.

Only in this way will the culture, environment and economic needs of indigenous communities be addressed without being destroyed in the quest for the energy transition.

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

About the author

Nicolás M. Perrone is professor of economic law and director at the Centre for Law, Regulation and Sustainable Economics at the School of Law, University of Valparaíso, Chile

Nicolás M. Perrone's picture