Opinion: Chile’s lithium deals are another example of ‘bad development’

Though Gabriel Boric’s government presents itself as environmentally friendly, recent decisions on lithium mining suggest otherwise, writes policy specialist Pamela Poo
<p>Lithium evaporation pools in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile. There are around 60 salt flats in the country, but only 30% have been designated for protection. (Image: Freedom Wanted / Alamy)</p>

Lithium evaporation pools in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile. There are around 60 salt flats in the country, but only 30% have been designated for protection. (Image: Freedom Wanted / Alamy)

The intensity of the climate and ecological crises is becoming increasingly evident. Scorching heatwaves, relentless droughts, devastating floods, extreme polar weather and forest fires are the result of economic activities such as deforestation, overexploitation of minerals and the expansion of agribusiness, to name just a few. These phenomena are keeping humanity in a state of perpetual concern, given the alarming prospect of global temperatures continuing to rise.

Excessive consumption is a cause of all this destruction – mainly by the richest countries on the planet, and supported by states that do not promote ambitious measures for its reduction. It is because of this lack of action that we are close to a tipping point. This moment is a product of inertia and the scarce political will to implement measures that respect planetary boundaries, and to dismantle “bad development”: economic approaches based on a logic of infinite growth, anthropocentric and utilitarian in their view of nature, a nature which cannot satisfy the demands of a system that persists in its destructive zeal.

Against this backdrop, Chile was looked to as a place of hope when the government of Gabriel Boric presented itself as an “ecological” administration upon taking power in 2022. One of its slogans – “if Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave” – proposed a new narrative, advocating a different way of doing things and of relating to nature. Sadly, almost two years later, little of that slogan seems to ring true for the government. In fact, the deepening of intense, extractive activities across the country is the order of the day, and lithium is a prime example of this trend.

At present, exploitation of the commodity and related proposals do not address the destructive future climate scenarios. The government’s policy on lithium seeks to expand its mining frontier. But although studies on salt flats are proposed under the government’s new lithium strategy, these should precede any decision on exploitation, unlike the status quo. Furthermore, though the use of new technologies is being promoted, regardless of what is being proposed, the sustainability of the ecosystems they work in, given their fragility, is not guaranteed.

All of this shows that ultimately, the government’s priority is extraction; in fact, of the approximately 60 salt flats in Chile, only 30% have been designated for protection, with many of the rest targeted for exploitation. This is a totally regressive measure for the environment, and begs the question: which salt flats deserve to be preserved, and which do not? Who can really play God? Given the scale of the climate and ecological crisis, the truth is that we cannot do without any ecosystem – our life depends on it, and to continue on this path is only to advance “bad development”.

The lithium policy of the Boric government considered social, environmental and economic elements by creating a research institute on salt flats and establishing dialogue with NGOs and experts, among other measures. But this progress has been left on the wayside after a memorandum of understanding between the state-owned company Codelco and mining conglomerate SQM was signed in December 2023, which sees the two companies jointly extracting lithium in the Salar de Atacama. The memorandum is framed in the extractive logic of the 20th century, with long-term partnerships envisaged, without considering the climate and socioeconomic crises or addressing an ethical perspective. Indigenous communities, for example, say they were not consulted over the initiative.

Person wearing a hard hat interacts with machinery in a factory, sack labelled 'lithium' visible to the right
Lithium carbonate production by the mining conglomerate SQM. Since last December, SQM has held exclusive rights to exploit lithium at the Salar de Atacama until 2030. (Image: Lucas Aguayo Araos / Alamy)

Engaging SQM, which has a history of irregular political financing, contradicts the government’s supposed transformation of the management of resources, and of politics in general. Furthermore, being signed by private entities, the memorandum disregards a key element of the lithium policy, which originally sought to establish a national lithium company, and for the state to have a stronger role. In this new agreement, SQM not only maintains exclusive rights to exploit the salt flat until 2030, but is slated to double extraction from 2031 to 2060. This extension will have a significant impact on the dynamics between the salt flats and the species that inhabit them.

Today, there are competing narratives and global pressures around lithium and other minerals. The green capitalist strategy seeks to frame a new narrative focused on reducing emissions without modifying the consumption of the global north. This places additional pressure on the natural resources of the global south, and does not respect planetary boundaries. That narrative imposes on us the idea that we must cooperate to save the world in the form of everyone reducing emissions. This reality is far from authentic, as it is the ecological crisis that is intensifying the climate crisis, and without changes in consumption patterns, technological renewal will not achieve a genuine transition.

The imperative of technological change is undeniable, but this strategy cannot be at all costs. Today, the logic of selling to the highest bidder prevails, without real compromises to improve the broader scenario. We are living in an increasingly scarcity-prone world, in which it is growing more challenging to survive. If the 20th century was marked by abundance, the 21st century seems to be inexorably heading towards scarcity.

Without changes in consumption patterns, technological renewal will not achieve a genuine transition

It is important to note that I do not advocate the elimination of mining – a point I often make. What I am proposing is simply that the current mining frontier, which is already considerable, should not be expanded. Mining must adopt an ecosystem-level and generational perspective. In the case of lithium, the salt flats and species that inhabit them have a fundamental right to exist as they are, just as future generations have the right to know and enjoy these ecosystems.

It is also essential to advance economic measures that promote nature-based solutions such as forestation and regenerative agriculture, as well as adaptation and resilience. Considering these aspects is crucial if we aspire to turn “bad development” around and build a more sustainable future.