Mining and the need to find a balance between ecological, economic, and social agendas to prosper
Since the arrival of colonial companies in Latin America, mining has been a key activity for sustaining Latin American economies, increasingly rooted in the culture and idiosyncrasies of some regions, which call themselves mining societies or communities. In Chile alone, mining is responsible for 14.6% of the national GDP, generates 263,000 jobs and exports comprise 62% of total national exports (47.5% in copper exports, 12.5 in other mining exports).
Despite the economic benefits of the industry, its activity has harmful impacts on the environment, is highly resource-intensive, and can cause irreparable damage to ecosystems. This also creates a risk of affecting the communities near the mines and causing illness or forced displacement. This increases and deepens the risk of climate migration, which occurs when a group of people or a community is forced to leave their territory due to environmental phenomena. It is estimated that there are currently 64 million people displaced by climate change, and the number could reach one billion in the next 60 years.
In this context is that the lithium industry is globally growing as the value of lithium increases due to its use in lithium-ion batteries, which are an important part of renewable energy technology and other strategies for decarbonization. As the demand for renewable energy increases around the world, so too does the demand for lithium.
Latin America is a key region for lithium production since it has significant reserves of this mineral in countries such as Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. Chile alone has 36% of the world's known reserves of this mineral, followed by Australia with 24% and Argentina with 10.4%. Despite this, Chile barely accounts for 32% of the world market, which in 2022 was led by Australia at 46%.
Challenges and opportunities that cannot be ignored
There is no doubt: the lithium market is necessary. More and more products and technologies depend on this material worldwide, and even more so if we consider that one of its uses contributes to the growth of renewable energy both in industries and in homes.
Latin America has a unique opportunity to harness its lithium wealth and become a key player in the production of renewable energies and electric vehicles. However, it is also important to address the challenges of caring for the environment, forced migration, community participation and engagement in decision-making, and political friction that arise along with this opportunity.
Mining has significant environmental costs, with greenhouse gas emissions, dust and other gases expelled into the atmosphere, the permanent modification of the terrain and desertification, loss of soil properties, changes in fluvial dynamics, heavy metal contamination, and great use of water. To extract a ton of lithium, approximately 2.2 million liters of water are needed.
Let us now consider that around 2.2 billion people currently do not have access to drinking water services in the world. Out of those, 161 million people correspond to Latin America. Although the right to drinking water is internationally recognized and one of the Sustainable Development Goals, we still have a long way ahead to achieve it, while activities such as agriculture or mining use water in large quantities. In adverse scenarios of water scarcity - increased global warming, change in ecosystems, food insecurity, the proliferation of diseases and the appearance of extreme and potentially deadly weather events - water is essential for sustaining life.
However, the increase in demand for lithium also poses challenges for the region that cannot be ignored. Lithium mining has a significant environmental impact, as lithium is found naturally in the brine beneath millennia-old salt flats in the Atacama desert in Chile. The salt flats are a habitat for Andean Pink Flamingos and other species which had lived almost undisturbed for centuries. The desert is also home to indigenous Atacameño communities and other Chilean communities which could see their livelihoods impacted by the industry.
The rising demand for lithium is a sign that the transition to a low-carbon economy is underway, and it represents both a risk and an opportunity. It is necessary to move forward in the process without ignoring the possible social and environmental risks and trying to resolve them before the industry grows excessively in the region.
Collaboration, the key to responsible mining
It is critical to promote responsible mining practices that recognize the geographic and territorial challenges and provide solutions designed by all parties involved. Dialogue and the participation of the communities involved are key to finding solutions. This can be achieved by promoting local talent and building long-lasting relationships between the industry and the communities. This can provide better resources and tools for innovation and entrepreneurship so that the communities themselves develop solutions to environmental and industrial challenges while reducing conflicts between the community and the industry.
Similarly, decision-makers at a ministerial and municipal level, together with those in charge of mining exploration, urgently need to accelerate mitigation measures in mining operations and find a balance between the economic benefits and impacts of a mining project. Their decision-making positions imply a responsibility towards the planet and society.
In this regard, Chile’s lithium strategy seems to be pointing in the right direction, as it seeks to increase lithium extraction from the Atacama salt flats, while also promoting the development of a domestic lithium value chain, including refining and manufacturing of battery components. Chile's government is working to attract foreign investment and establish partnerships with global companies to achieve these goals, with a focus on sustainable and responsible mining practices. The lithium strategy is seen as a key driver of economic growth and job creation in Chile, while also supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy.
It is imperative, if we want to achieve the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement without leaving anyone behind, to promote responsible mining and invest in clean technologies, land restoration, and further training within the industry so that work can be carried out safely and sustainably. Likewise, it is urgent to conduct a risk assessment and mitigate any adverse effects. Our inability to do this means crisis and instability within the industry, increased conflicts in the development of existing and new projects, and at the end of the line, the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the extinction of other species.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Felipe Fontecilla is the Climate Action Director of the Global Platform 2811 (Consulting and Investments 28th of November). They lead projects on ecological regeneration and climate action in Chile, Colombia, Brazil, USA and Germany. Felipe's professional experience includes work with NGOs and Political Think Tanks on issues regarding energy transition, climate policy, civic engagement and youth empowerment.