In South America’s ‘Lithium Triangle,’ a Struggle Between Tradition, Industry

21 March 2024

An area stretching across Argentina, Bolivia and Chile forms what is called the "Lithium Triangle." The earth there is rich in lithium, a necessary metal in creating batteries for electric cars and other products.

The international effort to develop technologies that do not use oil, gas or coal requires huge amounts of lithium. But small native communities in the Lithium Triangle are worried. They fear their way of life will disappear as industry pushes for new lithium mines. The mining takes place in low, dry areas known as "salt flats."

Stories from Argentina

FILE - The town of Tusaquillas, in the northern Argentine province of Jujuy, sits near the Guayatayoc salt lagoon, background, on April 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)
FILE - The town of Tusaquillas, in the northern Argentine province of Jujuy, sits near the Guayatayoc salt lagoon, background, on April 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

Irene Leonor Flores de Callata is 68 years old. She lives in a desert area of Argentina where she keeps llamas and sheep. The life includes searching for fresh water on a usual basis.

Her town is one of 38 that surround salt flats called the Guayatoyoc Lagoon and Salinas Grandes. People in the area earn some money from vacationing visitors and salt harvesting. They are a native people known as the Kolla.

Flores de Callata worries that if the mining expands in her area, there will be no water. She said: "What will we do if we don't have water? If the mines come, we'll lose our culture, we won't be left with anything."

Lithium's value

Between 2021 and 2023, the price for one ton of lithium almost tripled in the U.S., reaching $46,000. In China, a main buyer of lithium reportedly paid $76,000 for one ton of the metal last year. Some call the metal "white gold."

Mining companies around the world are turning their attention to the Lithium Triangle. World leaders are also pushing for lithium production. In the United States, President Joe Biden said he aimed to have electric vehicles make up half of all sales in America by 2030. That would amount to about 8 million electric vehicles. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said: "Argentina is poised to play a critical role in building supply chains for critical minerals that will drive the economy of the 21st century, particularly things like lithium."

Although prices have recently dropped because of oversupply, experts say worldwide demand is likely to rise in the future.

Environmental concerns in Chile

Two lithium mining companies operate in Chile, which borders Argentina to the west. SQM is a Chilean business and Albermarle is an American one. Valentín Barrera, a spokesman for SQM, said lithium is an answer to the problem climate change. "We want to grow, understanding that it's needed to mitigate climate change."

In Chile, SQM pumps thousands of liters of salt water out of the ground and then lets the water dry out in pools. The solids in the salty water contain lithium. The pools evaporate, leaving a solid substance that is collected and purified.

Environmentalists, however, are concerned that the mining in the area will harm animals like flamingos and other life. As in Argentina, mining has brought criticism and legal cases. Local people want influence in decisions about the land.

In 2016, an investigation of SQM found that the company had used more water in their mining process than the law permitted. Later, the company was ordered to pay $51 million to mitigate damage caused by six incidents, including the polluting of fresh water wells.

Barrera said the court actions and criticism come from "disinformation." He blamed the state-run copper mines, which also use a lot of water.

An Albermarle spokesperson said the underground salt water "is not water" because it is not drinkable.

The Associated Press (AP) spoke to a number of scientists. They said it is hard to believe that industrial water use does not affect the environment. They said water pumping can pollute fresh water with salty water and dry out the surrounding area.

Ingrid Garcés studies water at Chile's University of Antofagasta. She said the salt flats are important for different kinds of animal and plant life. She said the water in the salt flats is not drinkable but is connected to other water sources and is important to natives.

A 2020 report from the United Nations said that mining has used up 65 percent of the water in Chile's Atacama Salt Flat causing pollution and environmental damage, causing natives to leave "ancestral settlements."

In April of 2023, Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced a plan to increase government control of lithium mines. The government told the AP the plan would help control water use and spread wealth to more people. The move had the effect of pushing mining companies to invest in neighboring Argentina.

An opportunity and contradiction

Miguel Soler is secretary of mining in northern Argentina. He said, "In Argentina, (Chile's decision) is an opportunity."

More than 30 companies are officially seeking permission to mine in the Guayatoyoc Lagoon and Salinas Grandes areas in Argentina. Local people are opposing the business effort.

The llama herder Flores de Callata and her native Kolla people have fought against mining and brought long legal battles to halt projects in the past also.

"We are guardians of the highlands," said Flores de Callata, "We defend our land..."

Last summer, the local government changed laws to limit the ability of groups to protest against the expansion of mining. Alicia Chalabe, an environmental lawyer representing the communities, said the change to local law violates international law. She said there is a lot of "pressure to exploit lithium for electric vehicles." But she added, while lithium is important worldwide, "so is the resistance of these communities. They're not alone."

Flores de Callata lives in the small town of Tusaquillas next to the wide salt flats where mining might take place in the future. She has a small group of farm animals and lives in a home with dried mud walls that she and her husband built. She wonders what will be left in 20 years.

"If the mines come, we'll have money for a time. But then our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren—they're the ones who will suffer," she said.

Generations of Ramon Torres' family herded goats near a town close to Chile's Atacama Salt Flats. But when companies started mining lithium in the early 1980s, Torres took a job as a miner and started saving money.

Today, he uses his wireless phone as he sits next to his small home. He bought the house and his device with his earnings from mining.

"There is development, but there's also the water issue. And they contradict each other," Torres said. "Because everyone needs money, everyone also needs the basics, like healthcare and education."

I'm Mario Ritter, Jr.

And I'm Caty Weaver.

Megan Janetsky, Victor Caivano and Rodrigo Abd reported this story for the Associated Press. Mario Ritter, Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

battery –n. a device that stores electricity providing direct current

poised –adj. in the right condition to do something; about to

mitigate –v. to limit or ease a possibly damaging situation

pool –n. a very small body of water

evaporate –v. to dry up

opportunity –n. a chance to do something that did not exist before

contradict –v. to not be in agreement with something