Tossed Aside in the ‘White Gold’ Rush
Indigenous people are left poor as tech world takes lithium from under their feet
By Todd C. Frankel and Peter Whoriskey
Dec 19 2016
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.
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.