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Lithium mining in the Salar de Atacama, Chile

The Albermarley and SQM companies expand and extend their contracts, respectively, without carrying out indigenous consultation according to C169-ILO. Controversial Mining Agreements with Corfo, Municipality and Atacamean Communities divide the population.

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The Salar de Atacama corresponds to an ecosystem of Most High Ecological, Patrimonial, Cultural and Symbolic Value. It is located in the Andes mountain range of the Antofagasta region, with an approximate extension of 3,000 square km. The lagoons that are part of the Salar are the source of supply for the endemic fauna that inhabits the place, especially for the Andean flamingos, James and Chileans. Likewise, the tributaries generated in the Salar, allow drivers that supply water to the indigenous communities attacked by Salar, such as Comb, Socaire, Toconao and north, the communities of San Pedro de Atacama, so the importance of Water supply of Salar is based for the lives of these towns.

In recent decades, the mining scenario in the Atacama Salar basin positions Chile as the first producer of the mineral, which was cataloged as the new "white gold, and currently there are two mining companies that draw it: Rockwood Lithium (former Chilean lithium society), which was acquired by Albemarle, and chemical society and mining of Chile (SQM). The interest over the mineral has led to the extension of the brine for mineral extraction and has generated concern about the local population that has seen the waters of the Salar basin, the decrease in birds and fauna Prot Egida and the drying of Vegas and Bofedales that constituted areas for animal grazing [1].

The Chilean lithium society Ltda. It was created in 1980 by the entity State Corfo (Corporation for Production Promotion, Government of Chile) and the North American Minera Company FOOT MINERALS CO. (in a 45% relationship for the first entity, and 55% for the second), with the objective of exploiting lithium From the Salar de Atacama, through the Homonymous Project. In 1989, the CORFO state entity sells its participation to Foote Minerals Co., privatizing the project completely. In 1998, the North American company transferred its participation to the German company Chemetall until 2004, when finally the project is acquired by the multinational Rockwood Lithium, a company that is part of the North American company Albemarle Corporation [1].

The company performs lithium exploitation through the solar evaporation of ponds or pickles, which at first was carried out in a sector of 326 ha. However, in May 2009, Rockwood Lithium presented an EIA to expand its operations with 510 ha. More for solar evaporation, as well as the exploitation of brine extraction wells within the terrain of the company. The consumption of declared drinking water is 1,200 l / s for workers, and for operations of 2 l / s. The useful life is estimated at 30 years and is considered an investment of $ US 17 million [2].

The news of the expansion of the project generated a great Concern and discomfort among the inhabitants Atacameños del Salar, who manifested openly against the expansion of the project. The Communities of Peine and Toconao, through the process of citizen participation and through public demonstrations, noted that the EIA was not clear to explicit the water impacts and biodiversity, nor the negative consequences before the arrival of floating population. In September 2011, the Evaluation Commission of Antofagasta adversely rated the project, considering that the mitigation, compensation or repair measures declared by the company were not adequate. When the project being rejected, the company began to develop a job of rapprochement with the attacks, especially with Comb, with whom after a few months of talks, established the agreement called "Convention on Cooperation, Sustainability and Mutual Benefit" Subscribed in November 2012, and that continues in effect until today. This is that the company gives financial support to the Comunity of comb for the execution of a development plan, and also establishes an environmental surveillance plan and territorial sustainability by the Community towards the company [3].

The same year 2012, the Government announces the beginning of "special lithium operation contracts" within the framework of the "competitive impulse agenda", appealing that Chile's current policy prohibits lithium granting and prevents mass exploitation, fact that has led to the loss of leadership and participation of the country in the world market. The proposal considers that companies buy the right of concession to the State with permission to exploit in any area of ​​the national territory, receiving 93% of gross sales and paying the State for mining tax by 7%. These concessions are delivered through public competition to the SQM mining, however, on the way irregularities were made public in the process and links between representatives of the Government and SQM, which showed conflicts of interest in the tender processes, as well. As later, the creation of false ballots for the illegal financing of electoral campaigns by the company [5]. Among others of criticism of these processes, it is the non-realization of a citizen consultation as a requirement of environmental assessment systems for projects with impacts and also in "indigenous development area" declared by the State and framed in instruments such as indigenous law of Chile and ILO Convention 169 [1].

later, the Council of Peoples Atacameños (the indigenous organization that brings together the 18 indigenous communities of the Area) presented to the Supreme Court a protection resource against the Ministry of Mining around the irregularities and arbitrariness of the bidding process [1].

Parallel, the Rockwood company wanted to bring the same "Agreement" process with the Council of Atacameños Peoples, but it failed for 4 years of attempt, until in April 2016 the agreement was established. Coincidentally with this Agreement, the Chilean Environmental Authority approved the previously rejected project, allowing the company to begin to carry out the process of expansion of its operations at the beginning of 2017. Despite this agreement, there are detractors and those who continue to oppose and reject this Agreement within the representatives of Atacameño Peoples and inhabitants of San Pedro [3].

Currently, there are two local environmental organizations of the San Pedro commune, "Defense Grouping From the Salar de Atacama "and" Ayllus by water ", which demand environmental impacts, especially, regarding the water involvement generated by Rockwood's operations in the area. For its part, 2016 the General Directorate of Aguas de Chile declared exhausted the tributary of the San Pedro River (tributary of the basin that delivers water to the communities of San Pedro de Atacama), and in the same year, the Superintendence of the Environment sanctions on the SQM mining for six infractions, including more saltwater water than permitted [4].

2018 is declared the entire prohibited area for The delivery of new underground water farms, and the same year, the Council of Peoples Atacameños interpels the Government for the promise of conducting a hydrological study of the Salar basin, study that has not been performed to date. This led to the same indigenous organization to establish measuring zones throughout the Salar. The information with which it is counted so far, is that there is a decrease in the levels of the core and the radial area of ​​the Salar, which has determined that there is a decrease in the flow rates, as well as, the appreciation of the decrease of Flamingos and Vegas where they took animals to be grazing [6]. This affectation to flamingos and other aniames, is related to the impacts generated by the exploitation of mines on microorganisms as indicated by microbiologist Cristina Door: "Microorganisms are the basis of everything ... the exploitation of the brine that has taken place in the last 10 or 20 years has reduced the number of microorganisms and has affected the ecosystem. The microbes that live in the water provide food for the plankton and crustaceans. These are consumed by larger animals, such as by Jemplo, the Flamingos, the most emblematic species in the area ".

In 2017, it felt that the 2 companies (SQM and Albemarle), extracted more than 63 billion liters of salt water from the deepest layers of the desert, that is, almost 2 thousand liters per second. In addition to consuming a considerable amount of fresh water. This has generated a decrease in hydro reserves that have been denounced by local communities: "" Before the miners came here there was plenty of water. Mining has consumed underground napas, take water from one river from another sector as well and does not reach the corresponding water here. "That generates impacts not only environmental but a serious cultural involvement for the Likan-Antai people, as a member explained. From the community of Coyo: "For the attaciaños, water not only has a material value but also cultural and spiritual. "For us as Likan-Antai (ATACAMANÑA ETHNIA), water is very important. Not only water in relation to what is to maintain our customs through agriculture, but also because water is life" member of the community of coyo " .

Finally, at 2020, the attorney council attawner, in the context of a German automotive visit (which makes electric cars with lithium batteries), said Publicly that it is expected that for the development of this industry, added to mining, it will quote the demand and production of batteries in a medium term, a situation that is concerned with the communities since they said: "Salar is sick, but we do not know How sick it is "[4].

Basic Data
Name of conflict:Lithium mining in the Salar de Atacama, Chile
State or province:Antofagasta Region
Location of conflict:San Pedro de Atacama
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Mineral ore exploration
Tailings from mines
Specific commodities:Lithium
Project Details and Actors
Project details

In May 2009 Rockwood enters a project to expand operations called "modifications and improvement of the solar evaporation pool system in the Atacama Salar", through EIA, which considered the construction of a 510 ha solar evaporation surface Next to the current facilities of the company, as well as the drilling and exploitation of brine extraction wells within the terrain of the company. In this way, the new project would have a total extension of 836 ha. The drinking water consumption declared by the company is specified in 1,200 l / s for workers, and for operations, in 2 l / s, which would be obtained from the same wells generated by the company. The useful life is estimated at 30 years and is considered an investment of $ US 17 million.

Project area:836.
Level of Investment for the conflictive project17,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:110,000.
Start of the conflict:01/06/2009
Company names or state enterprises:Rockwood Lithium Limitada (Rockwood Lithium) from United States of America
Albermarle Corporation (Albermale) from United States of America
SQM from Chile
Wealth Minerals from Canada
Relevant government actors:Corporación de Promotion of Corfo Production, Government of Chile.
Ministry of Mining, Government of Chile
Ministry of the Environment, Government of Chile
General Directorate of Aguas, Ministry of Public Works, Government of Chile
National Development Corporation Conadi, Government of Chile
Municipality of San Pedro de Atacama
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salaries Opsal:

Atacama We are all

Tanti Foundation:

Council of Peoples Atacameños /
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Social movements
Town Atacameño (Likan-Antai)
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Objections to the EIA
Street protest/marches
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Air pollution, Desertification/Drought, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Waste overflow
Other Environmental impactsImpacts on water levels in lagoons and wetlands, affecting biodiversity.
Health ImpactsVisible: Other Health impacts
Potential: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Other Health impactsLithium and potassium mining in the Salar de Atacama produces solid waste that accumulates in the Salar of Atacama. These waste rises with the wind in the form of dust and arrive especially on the villages of Camar, Talabre and Toconao. There are no measurements or monitoring about the possible impacts on the health of the inhabitants.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Land dispossession
Other socio-economic impactsShared-Value Agreements Have Created Strong Divisions and Deepened Inequalities Among Local Population.
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Under negotiation
Proposal and development of alternatives:The attacks and inhabitants of the area oppose the Lithium Salmas Expansion Project for Antelar that the impact of exploiting one of the main water reserves in a high water shortage area is totally irrational and incompatible with agricultural development, pastoral and indigenous ancestral practices that have developed the attacks by time immemorial.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Such a fragile and unique ecosystem as the Salar de Atacama today is in imminent danger before the lithium extraction operations, which threaten to deepen the water crisis of the area and leave without water the indigenous population Atacameña and the endemic fauna that lives And gives life to this wonderful and unique place. However, exploitation companies have been installed in the territory prior to the enactment of national indigenous laws and ratification of Convention 169, by which processes have been carried out without citizen participation. Today the projection of lithium encompasses an increase in mineral extraction and is concerned about communities that are in one of the most arid deserts in the world. The water descents of the basin are perceived each year, but there are no official records of their state and have had to be the same indigenous communities who organize independently monitors on the basin and negotiate directly with mining companies. These agreements, in the case of Albemarle (ex-Rockwood), have allowed the obtaining of the environmental license (RCA) necessary for the expansion of the mining in the Salar, generating great controversy.

For its part SQM, it negotiated the End of Conflict with the State Agency Corfo in January 2018, contemplating the delivery of up to USD 1,500 million a year for Communiary Development, and other contributions to local municipalities and for the financing of a research center ( Institute of clean energies). This Agreement motivated protests and a protection resource by the Council of Atacameños Peoples and the Communities grouped in said Association, except the Camaria community; Associations of indigenous and non-indigenous irrigation and activists of San Pedro de Atacama. This process was not favorable for the defense of Salar and the Convention continues its implementation by generating strong controversies around the multi millionaires contributions that the company must deliver to the Atacamean communities.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[2] Proceso de Evaluación del Estudio de Impacto Ambiental por el Sistema de Evaluación Ambiental de Chile
[click to view]

[6] Declara como zona de prohibición para nuevas explotaciones de aguas subterráneas en el sector hidrogeológico de aprovechamiento común denominado C2 de la Cuenca del Salar de Atacama, Región de Antofagasta. Dirección de Obras Públicas, Dirección General de Aguas.
[click to view]

Tradición Minera y Gran Minería en la Cuenca del Salar de Atacama. Tesis sobre minería del litio y negociaciones con la comunidad indígena de Peine en el Salar (2014) Catalina Benavides y Denise Sinclaire.
[click to view]

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Benavides y Sinclaire, 2014. Tradición Minera y Gran Minería en la Cuenca del Salar de Atacama. Tesis sobre minería del litio y negociaciones con la comunidad indígena de Peine en el Salar (2014) Catalina Benavides y Denise Sinclaire.
[click to view]

Salares Andinos: Ecología de Saberes por la Protección de Nuestros Salares y Humedales
[click to view]

Tradición Minera y Gran Minería en la Cuenca del Salar de Atacama. Tesis sobre minería del litio y negociaciones con la comunidad indígena de Peine en el Salar (2014) Catalina Benavides y Denise Sinclaire.

[3] Comunidad denuncia destrucción de ecosistema del Salar de Atacama por acción de mineras SQM y Rockwood Lithium
[click to view]

[4] Artículo sobre la demanda de litio para baterías por la industria automotriz y la minería, y las afectaciones de aguas de salmuera y su impacto en las comunidades indígenas del Salar de Atacama.
[click to view]

[5] Artículo CIPER CHILE: El entierro del Caso SQM: así se fraguó la impunidad para el financiamiento político ilegal desde la minera.
[click to view]

[6] DW; Chile: Explotación de litio deja sin agua a pobladores; 12 de junio del 2017
[click to view]

Diputados indagan efectos de la explotación del litio en salar
[click to view]

Acusan lobby para inhibir fiscalización a SQM y Rockwood en Salar de Atacama
[click to view]

Boom del litio podría ser una amenaza para los flamencos del Salar de Atacama.
[click to view]

BHRRC - Flood of Abuses
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

II Jornada por la Defensa del Agua , San Pedro de Atacama
[click to view]

Teaser Documental Salares Andinos: El Agua Vale Más que el Litio (2020-21)
[click to view]

Meta information
Last update31/10/2021
Conflict ID:3103
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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