A UvA Research Group Conducts Research in Northern Chile – Fieldwork in Chile #5 | Culture shock and evaluation

Why lithium?

Energy transition requires large amounts of raw materials. However, clean energy technologies require much more metals and minerals than working with fossil fuels such as petroleum and coal. As the demand for “cleaner” raw materials increases, social and environmental tensions arise in the places where these raw materials are extracted. This is also the case with lithium, a light metal used in the production of electric vehicle batteries and power grids. The demand for lithium is expected to continue to grow in the coming decades.

The Mining for the Energy Transition research project is interdisciplinary and looks at the economic, environmental, technological, social, political and commercial aspects of the energy system, energy transition and sustainable goals. The research project is funded by intensifies (Energy Transition from a Sustainable Development Goals Perspective), one of the research priorities among UvA faculty.

Doing research as a group in this extraordinary environment of the largest lithium reserves in the world is both fascinating and frustrating. In change groups, we visit all kinds of places and institutions during the day and talk to different people. In the evening we usually feel overwhelmed by the many impressions. However, sometimes it seems that we do not go further than simply “scraping the surface”. However, the fact that only the two lithium companies have detailed information about what is happening in the deep soil and aquifers as a result of industrial pumping of brine containing lithium is not only a problem for us. Local and municipal organizations and concerned citizens also suffer from this.

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On our last day, we just got to talk to three employees from the original CPA organization (see Alicia’s story in episode two of this series). With part of the income they receive through their agreement with the lithium company, they recently set up their own environmental department to study the consequences of mining. This department is larger than the municipal department, which has only been around since 1980 and must serve this huge area with a limited number of employees. The absence of government is a common complaint here, however. Progressive President Borek’s soon-to-be-announced lithium reform could make a difference. At the same time, other governments are also strengthening their ties in the Atacama: while visiting the Albemarle mining company, we learned that the previous week, European Commission Vice-President Margrethe Vestager had been a guest there.

The Aboriginal CPA doesn’t feel they can stop lithium activities – and they’re also happy about the income and opportunities available to the locals (see Sanne’s story in episode 3 of this series) – but they certainly want to prevent water management in this dry ecosystem permanently disturbed. The only question is: How do you know if there is over-exploitation and permanent damage? While not much is known about the long-term effects of pumping out lithium-containing water, mining companies don’t really disclose measurement results, and the government has so far played a passive role (see Pauline’s story in episode 4 of this series). The Indigenous Local Environment Department is also very cautious about sharing information with outside agencies such as ourselves at the moment.

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