Lessons from history highlight need for climate justice for the Atacama Salt Flat

Now that the race is on for lithium extraction in Chile, history warns us to reflect on the experience of nitrate and copper mining. How can we ensure the environment is protected and local communities benefit equally from the energy transition?

Mauricio Figueroa's picture
Insight by 
Mauricio Figueroa
Member of the Center for Law, Regulation and Sustainable Economics, Faculty of Law, University of Valparaíso
28 May 2024
A mine in Chuquicamata, Chile

Chuquicamata, Chile (Photo: Bruna Fiscuk, via Unsplash)

Global discussions on climate justice refer to the distribution of costs, risks and benefits of the energy transition. There is an expectation that those who benefited most from the fossil economy will bear the costs and contribute resources and technology, while those groups most vulnerable to climate change will receive support.

Collaborative research in the Atacama Salt Flat highlighted the importance of history in shaping perceptions about lithium among environmental advocates, indigenous communities and government authorities. History reminds people of what nitrates could have offered the Antofagasta region and of the promise of copper, which has brought pollution and poverty to the region. 

Now these images from history shape conversations about relations between communities and companies amid hopes for a better life from lithium.

Nitrates, a missed opportunity for northern Chile

At the beginning of the 20th century, Chile anticipated a promising economic future from nitrate extraction for fertiliser to use in agriculture. However, the arrival of synthetic nitrates during World War I caused a steep drop in tax revenues, a fall in living standards and the abandonment of mining settlements. This led to the relocation of the workforce to peripheral areas of cities, where they lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

Talking to people in the north of Chile, this is not just a distant historical fact. It is part of their culture, their life stories and of how they look towards the future. 

The indigenous Lickanantay people saw once prosperous towns transform into deserts, exhausted by extraction, becoming tales of failed development and neglect.

It is not surprising, then, that the questions that resonate today in the city of San Pedro de Atacama are: why should we help solve the climate change problem that we are not responsible for? What does the lithium boom mean for our community? And what will happen when lithium loses its value?

Copper, pollution, and poverty for Antofagasta

Located in the north of the country, the Antofagasta region is known as ‘Chile's salary’. Its copper resources have financed modern Chile. For the mining city of Calama, however, copper represents a very different story hidden from the world's eyes. Today, the region faces a major water and environmental crisis due to both climate change and the environmental impact of longstanding mining operations.

Mining firms have been accused of releasing discharge into the Loa River (in Spanish); contaminated waters have destroyed ecosystems affecting subsistence agriculture and the Quillagua Oasis. The inhabitants of one of the driest towns in the world were displaced to Calama, settling on the outskirts of the city, where they swell the ranks of the poor and unemployed (poverty and unemployment indicators are above the national average in Calama).

Communities who live on the Atacama Salt Flat basin are well aware of these experiences and fear a similar fate from lithium mining – an uninhabitable territory and potential displacement – as well as the possibility that the longed for and promised economic boom will deepen inequality still further.

Lithium, a hope for the Lickanantay people?

Images of the past – of the experiences with nitrates and copper – warn the Lickanantay people of the threats facing the community and its ecosystems. They question how they can be responsible for the climate crisis they have contributed little to causing, while their livelihoods depend on traditional agriculture.

However, they also have a vision. Faced with the inevitability of their territory being exploited, they place their hope in the funds directed towards environmental monitoring and compliance and economic opportunities for self-development, infrastructure and education so that daughters and sons can return to the towns located along the Atacama Salt Flat: Peine, Toconao, Cámar.

But Lickanantay people also fear that their lithium will fuel an unequal development model, in which the benefits of exports only flow to the capital, Santiago, while the harmful impacts never leave the territory. Development for Chile and the world; poverty and uncertainty for the inhabitants of this territory.

Earlier experiences provide important lessons to avoid lithium extraction repeating the stories of nitrates and copper. Institutions and governance arrangements need to be put in place to ensure that mining is sustainable and the Lickanantay people benefit from lithium extraction. 

There is a lot this community can teach the national government and companies about how this might be achieved, learning from the mistakes of the past that are still so present in people's lives.

This insight 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

Mauricio Figueroa is a teaching fellow, economic law department, and member of the Center for Law, Regulation and Sustainable Economics, Faculty of Law, University of Valparaíso

Mauricio Figueroa's picture