For microbiologist Cristina Dorador-Ortiz, the Atacama Desert in northern Chile is a gold mine. Not because of the enormous amounts of minerals in the soil, but because of the unique flora and fauna in the area. “Because of the drought in this desert, you can find rocks and stones that have been in this place for 20 million years,” she says. “In addition, there are fragile ecosystems, which are unfortunately rapidly disappearing due to increasing mining.”

    Although other minerals are also mined in the Atacama Desert, it is lithium mining that Dorador-Ortiz is particularly concerned about. A lot of water is needed to extract lithium and the Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world. There are fresh water reserves, but they are stored deep underground. And an enormous amount of water is used in the production of lithium: 500,000 liters of water are needed to extract a ton of lithium.

    More than a quarter of all lithium in the world is located in the Atacama desert. This supply of an estimated eight million tons of lithium is already being fought for by mining companies from all over the world. The EU is also an eager buyer of Chilean lithium: 80 percent of all lithium imported to the EU in 2020 came from the South American country. The renewed trade agreement between the EU and Chile will probably give those imports a boost.

    Access to Chilean lithium

    A renewal of the agreement, which originally dates from 2002, was necessary: ​​bilateral trade between the EU and Chile grew by more than 140 percent between 2002 and 2021 and goods trade between the two trading partners is already worth almost 17 billion euros. According to the renewed agreement, almost all Chilean import duties on products from the EU will be lifted. European companies will have better access to public procurement and to sectors such as telecommunications and financial services. In addition, special attention is paid to SMEs, which should be able to get started more easily in Chile. Conversely, Chilean companies will also have more access to the European market.

    An important chapter in the agreement is devoted to the EU’s improved access to minerals such as lithium. This is badly needed for the EU: the World Bank recently wrote that Europe will need eighteen times more lithium than now in 2030 and even sixty times more by 2050, if it wants to meet the ambitious climate goals. Lithium is an important product in rechargeable batteries, and the mineral is essential for the car industry in Europe, where all new cars must be electric from 2035.

    The agreement emphasizes that sustainable development is paramount, something that Dorador-Ortiz says is difficult to reconcile with the growing demand for lithium. “Sustainable mining does not exist. I fully understand that in the context of climate change we have to look for alternative energy. But the picture is not complete,” she says NRC. “Ultimately, economic interests always come first in these types of trade agreements. I seriously question whether we understand to what extent we are jeopardizing the vast wealth of knowledge and history stored in the desert.”

    The EU says in the trade agreement that it wants to ensure sustainability and limit the impact on the environment. An independent commission must look into the impact of mining in northern Chile and lithium must be extracted from the ground in the most sustainable way through innovation. Conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO) are another important starting point of the agreement, including to ensure that labor rights are respected and women have greater access to the economy.

    One of the conventions of the ILO that indigenous communities in Chile often invoke to protect their land and culture is ILO (after the English name of the ILO) 169. They can invoke this convention if, for example, upcoming mining projects can encroach on their territory. to damage. Indigenous communities must then be involved in the realization of the project and give their approval.

    A miner inspects lithium-containing brine in the Atacama Desert.
    Photo Lucas Aguayo Araos/Getty Images
    Miners at work in the Atacama Desert.
    Photo John Moore/Getty Images

    According to Christian Espíndola Araya, spokesman for the Toconao indigenous community, that convention was violated during the negotiations on the trade agreement. “We are not involved for a moment in the realization of this EU agreement, at any stage. There was no provision of information and no role for our communities,” he says. He belongs to the Atacameño people, who live in more than twenty communities in the Atacama Desert. For thousands of years, these people have lived in the area, where they live from their llamas and alpacas, their ceramics and wool trade.

    Their living environment is increasingly threatened by lithium mining, says Espíndola Araya. “Our community has always developed around water. That’s where our concerns about lithium mining come from: it’s a type of mining that requires a lot of water. Places where there is still water will dry up,” he says. “There are already communities that have to leave the land where they have lived for centuries. Partly because of this agreement, there are great concerns about the future of our people.”

    The fact that the indigenous communities were not involved in the negotiations surrounding the agreement with the EU creates mistrust, says Espíndola Araya. He says he is wary of promises from companies and governments to accommodate indigenous groups. According to him, lithium companies in the area do something, for example, financial support is given to social projects. Communities get scholarships, money for cultural centers, the indigenous leader says. But he calls those compensations a plaster on the wound. “Their compensation is used to clean up their image in other countries. As if they help us move forward,” he says. “I would like us to be more involved in these kinds of agreements and projects and to be taken more seriously. Lithium is presented as something very beautiful and very clean. But the damage to our territory is enormous.”

    The Chilean government promoted the agreement with the EU with a photo of flamingos in the Atacama desert. Microbiologist Cristina Dorador-Ortiz calls this a “disrespect”, since those birds are moving away from the desert because mining would contaminate their food and drinking water. “It is indicative of the attitude of the government and mining companies. Outwardly this is presented as something good for everyone, but the truth is that very few will really benefit from it.”

    She also points out that the local population was little involved in the conclusion of the agreement with the EU. That is why she wonders whether the implementation of the agreement will lead to change for the region. “When negotiating mining, we need to look beyond the product itself. We need to look at the effects on the ecosystem and the habitability of places,” she says. “Due to mining, this region contributes significantly to Chile’s economic growth, but poverty is high here. We don’t see the electric cars here, but we do see the waste.”

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