These Andean salt flats hold a wealth of lithium, vital to modern batteries.
Mining companies are extracting fortunes. But indigenous people here say they are being left out.
In the thin air of the salt flats here, nearly 13,000 feet above sea level, the indigenous Atacamas people face a constant struggle.
They herd llamas and goats on arid land, knit Andean hats for extra money and chew coca leaves to fight off the altitude’s dizzying effects. They live in mud-brick homes with roofs made of sheets of corrugated metal weighed down with rocks against the stiff winds.
Yet beneath their ancestral land lies a modern-day Silicon Valley treasure: lithium.
The silvery-white metal is essential for the lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles, and the popularity of these products has prompted a land rush here. Mining companies have for years been extracting billions of dollars of lithium from the Atacama region in Chile, and now firms are flocking to the neighboring Atacama lands in Argentina to hunt for the mineral known as “white gold.”
But the impoverished Atacamas have seen little of the riches.
According to previously undisclosed contracts reviewed by The Washington Post, one lithium company, a joint Canadian-Chilean venture named Minera Exar, struck deals with six aboriginal communities for a new mine here. The operation is expected to generate about $250 million a year in sales while each community will receive an annual payment — ranging from $9,000 to about $60,000 — for extensive surface and water rights.
Another lithium company here, a joint venture of an Australian mining company and Toyota Tsusho of Japan that began production in 2015, makes cash payments to the village where its plant is based. A company representative declined to release details of the contract but said the money has been used to help build a school hall.
Mobile power, human toll
The world has grown reliant on lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops and electric cars. But the desperate search for the ingredients carries a steep cost.
In visits to all six of the indigenous communities, which lie on a mountain-ringed desert about 25 miles from Argentina’s northwest border with Chile, The Post found a striking contrast — faraway companies profiting from mineral riches while the communities that own the land struggle to pay for sewage systems, drinking water and heat for schools.
“We know the lithium companies are taking millions of dollars from our lands,” said Luisa Jorge, a leader in Susques, one of the six communities around the salt flats. “The companies are conscious of this. And we know they ought to give something back. But they’re not.”
Many in the communities also are worried that the lithium plants, which use vast amounts of water, will deepen existing shortages in the region, which receives less than four inches of rain a year. At least one of the six communities, Pastos Chicos, already has to have potable water trucked in.
Local indigenous communities say they have a spiritual connection with the pools, known as “eyes,” in the Salinas Grandes salt flat in Argentina.
“It’s like a joke,” said Bruno Fornillo, a researcher at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council who studies the impact of lithium mining. The companies “really think the indigenous are like stones in the road. If there’s a problem, they have to kick it aside.”
In response to the complaints, the mining companies active here told The Post that they follow environmental regulations and that the lithium boom has yielded benefits for residents. They point to the creation of hundreds of jobs and investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in one of Argentina’s poorest regions. Some companies said they also engage in education efforts and economic development projects, such as testing whether quinoa can be grown in the area.
“There is no resistance,” said Alex Losada-Calderon, general manager of Sales de Jujuy, the lithium company that opened a plant on the Olaroz salt flat in 2015. “From the very beginning we worked very, very closely with the local community.”
But opposition is not hard to find. A protest banner, reading “The lithium belongs to the local people,” recently welcomed travelers outside the airport in Salta, which is frequented by mining executives. The drive to the salt flats leads past a barrier on a steep mountain pass with the spray-painted message: “No to the contamination of the mines.” And settlements are dotted with people concerned about the future.
“They are taking everything away from us,” said Carlos Guzman, 44, an indigenous resident who leads a group worried about contamination and water use by the lithium mines. “These lands are ancestral. We live by this. By the fields. By our cattle. This way of life is in danger.”
The lithium boom — with jobs for some, worries for others — has divided communities. It has spurred demonstrations and lawsuits. Guzman’s sister, Elva, made a protest sign that seemed to distill the fight.
“We don’t eat batteries,” the hand-painted sign read. “They take the water, life is gone.”
From salt flats to modern tech
It is difficult to know where the lithium from this area goes once it is extracted — or which mobile gadgets it winds up in. But there are some connections.
The Sales de Jujuy operation declined to say who its customers are, but it is in part owned by Toyota Tsusho, a trading company tied to the automaker, which is increasingly using lithium-ion batteries for cars. Lithium from Sales de Jujuy may also be sold to Panasonic, according to a news release announcing the lithium project. Panasonic has made batteries for Toyota and electric-car maker Tesla.
Toyota said in a statement that it does not buy lithium directly but tries to minimize the suppliers’ impact on local communities, “and we will ask our suppliers to take actions to avoid using certain materials if there is a concern about the source.”
The other lithium operation here, Minera Exar, is owned in part by SQM, a Chilean mining company that is one of the world’s largest lithium producers. SQM lithium is in the Apple supply chain, according to an industry executive.
“Apple is deeply committed to the responsible sourcing of materials for our products, and we work hard to ensure our suppliers adhere to the strictest standards in the industry,” Apple said in a statement, in response to questions from The Post. “We will soon launch on-site evaluations of major lithium producers and any that are unable or unwilling to comply with our standards will be removed from our supply chain. As we do across our supply chain, Apple will continue working hard to raise standards, protect human rights and safeguard the places where these materials are found.”
Minera Exar defended its relationship with local communities, noting that its contracts with them also include job training and promises to try to hire local workers. The company said it also has spent more than $241,000 in the past two years on local projects, such as a community building in Pastos Chicos.
“We are completely compliant with everything,” said John Kanellitsas, president of Lithium Americas, the Canadian partner in the joint venture behind the Minera Exar operation here.
More generally, however, the lithium supply chain is obscured by consumer companies’ refusal to divulge their suppliers. A few, such as Pulead, a maker of battery parts, answered questions about sources. Albemarle, the world’s largest lithium producer, discloses its major customers. Apple publishes a list of its top suppliers.
But most declined to reveal their sources or customers.
Samsung did not reply to repeated requests for comment. Tesla would not identify which companies supply the lithium in its car batteries.
“Tesla is committed to ensuring all supply chain practices are safe and humane,” a spokeswoman, Alexis Georgeson, said in a statement.
Tracing your tech’s lithium
The lithium-ion battery industry has a massively complicated supply chain. Each consumer company has dealt with multiple suppliers — and their suppliers have dealt with multiple suppliers. This shows a few of the connections within the industry.