Atacama Indigenous Groups Fight Top Lithium Producer SQM

SANTIAGO — After a legal victory last week against top lithium producer SQM, indigenous Chilean groups vowed to continue their fight. The groups have been fighting to revoke the producer’s environmental permits for years. They say they will not stop until the producer’s operations are shut down.

After a legal victory earlier this week, the Atacama Indigenous Council (CPA) – an umbrella organization for indigenous groups surrounding the Atacama salt flat – said on Friday, Aug. 14, that it would keep fighting the Chilean Chemical and Mining Society (SQM), until its environmental permits  are revoked and its operations are shut down.

Surrounding the salt flat are 18 indigenous communities. They seek to protect the flats from mining companies. The mining companies pump brine from the flats into lagoons, where the sun evaporates the water, leaving the minerals exposed.

Indigenous groups claim that mining companies are pumping more water than what is replaced by snow and rainfall. Since Atacama’s salt flat is in the middle of the desert, water resources are already limited, and so the 18 local communities are being directly affected by the threats to their ecosystem that are forcing them to change the way they live.

Questions are also raised about whether the salt flat can support the levels of production the companies expect to reach, without serious, long-lasting environmental damage to the area.

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Multi-Year Legal Battle Against SQM

CPA’s battle against SQM has been going on for years. In 2019, the Chilean environmental regulator approved a US$25 million remediation plan from SQM after a multi-year investigation against the mining company was carried out because authorities found they had over-pumped lithium-rich brine from the Atacama salt flat.

After the environmental regulator approved the multimillion-dollar plan, CPA filed a lawsuit against the lithium mining company. They demanded that SQM’s plan be discarded, arguing that a much tougher plan was needed for the environmental damage caused.

Initially, CPA won, but earlier this year the environmental regulator appealed to Chile’s Supreme Court, defending SQM’s plan. It appeared to be a major setback for CPA until last week, when the regulator suddenly pulled out of the legal battle. This now leaves SQM in a complicated position, as it will have to work on a new compensation plan from scratch. 

For CPA, this is a huge victory, but it does not mean they are fully satisfied. They want to push until SQM’s environmental permits are revoked and the company shuts down all operations in the area. Sergio Cubillos, council president, said on Friday that the “damages made by this company are immeasurable, and they must assume responsibility.”

Four Companies To Be Looked Over

The Atacama salt flat supplies about one-fourth of the world’s lithium, a mineral used to make cell phone and electric vehicle batteries, among other things. Copper is also obtained from the same location. There are currently four companies that mine lithium and copper from the flat in northern Chile: SQM, Albemarle, Antofagasta’s Zaldivar copper mine, and BHP’s Escondida mine.

The Environment Superintendency (SMA) said a new management plan will assess the impacts of these four companies on the salt flat. The agency said it would work on cross-referencing data from the miners to gain a better understanding of each of their environmental footprints.

Some of the new measures taken by the SMA are starting to show. On Jul. 30, SMA accused the Escondida mine – the world’s largest copper mine – of exceeding water extraction limits for 15 years.

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