Unjust Pasts, Uncertain Futures: Lithium, Water, and Socioenvironmental Conflicts in the Atacama Desert

Maria Akchurin, Loyola University of Chicago

Lithium production is rapidly growing, driven by increasing global demand for electromobility. While the lithium boom is intertwined with visions of a renewable energy transition and possibilities of more sustainable development, it is simultaneously generating harmful impacts and uncertain futures for communities and ecosystems situated on its front lines. In this paper, I trace the history of lithium mining in the salt flats of Chile’s Atacama Desert, a site of intensive lithium extraction and water withdrawals for copper mining that is also increasingly affected by climate change. I examine how government officials, experts, activists, and mining companies clash over the impacts of “green” extractive economies in the salt flats and analyze the extent to which environmental bureaucracies intervene to evaluate past harms and manage anticipated environmental risks, in a context of contradictory coexistence between local communities and mining companies that reflects enduring patterns of conflict, mutual dependence, and negotiation. The study is based on a qualitative analysis of government documents, interviews with experts and community leaders, and media sources.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 78. Community impacts and economics