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False solutions to climate change: Lithium extraction at the Atacama Desert of Chile

By Adriana Daroqui, The New School

Abstract

While Global North governments discuss climate change in terms of carbon emissions and net-zero energy based on carbon trading for sustaining existing lifestyles and business as usual, in the Global South, popular environmentalism relates to the struggle to achieve fair ecological distribution, defend community access to natural resources, and protect people’s livelihoods. Green policies that promote renewable energy technologies such as photo-voltaic panels, wind turbines, and electric batteries severely harm the ecosystems in extraction areas, destroying biodiversity, contaminating water, and causing social and environmental damage to local indigenous communities. Despite their reputation as an eco-friendly alternative to gas-powered vehicles, electric cars require large amounts of lithium for their batteries. Lithium mining replicates the traditional extractive colonialist model of commodifying nature and often devastates local ecosystems. In Chile, lithium is extracted from underground brine water found in the Atacama Salt Flats, one of the driest places on Earth. In this study, I discuss how lithium mining in the Atacama Desert impacts biodiversity, depletes water and displaces indigenous communities in areas of extraction—communities that have been marginalized and criminalized by the government for no reason other than their occupation of this resource-rich land. This study includes a literature review on the negative environmental impacts, human rights, indigenous sovereignty, and more caused by the supply chain of raw materials related to renewable energy technologies. This study will also present the story of lithium mining in Chile and its effects on politics, the environment, biodiversity, and indigenous communities. Qualitative data has been gathered through semi-structured interviews and analyzing reports and websites authored by activists and indigenous people. The results indicate that the economic interests of mining companies have taken precedence over environmental ones; brine extraction reduces the availability of freshwater and decreases biodiversity while producing several consequences for local communities. Green policies hide the harm, abuses, and human rights violations that are systemic in the extractivist model. A clear understanding of renewable energies is critical in advocating for real solutions to climate change.

Download: False solutions to climate change- Lithium mining in Chile.docx