The cost of green energy: lithium mining’s impact on nature and people

The head of the environmental unit of Chile's Atacama Indigenous Council, Francis Mandoca, states that lithium mines ruin one zone to satisfy another. By GlobalData Thematic Intelligence.

The Maricunga salt flat in the Atacama desert, Chile. Credit: Alberto Loyo via Shutterstock.

Global advocacy for clean energy, exemplified by the rising demand for lithium, has created unsettling realities in South America. The transition to lithium-ion batteries signifies a step towards sustainability, yet it does not come without cost. While we applaud the strides toward a greener future, it is important to acknowledge the challenges involved with the production of these clean energy solutions.

Ecological devastation is a bleak reality

The environmental fallout from lithium mining is clear and far-reaching. A massive quantity of fresh water, classified as a precious resource in these arid regions, is diverted for lithium mining operations, where it creates brine from the salt flats. This leaves local communities and wildlife parched. Sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide used in lithium extraction penetrate the soil and water, poisoning ecosystems and endangering species.  

Research from the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society shows that two flamingo species in Chile are threatened because of lithium mining. 

Deforestation, habitat destruction and water pollution further exacerbate the ecological toll. The delicate balance of nature is disrupted, which leaves long-lasting damage that takes generations to heal. The carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions that come with the process of lithium mining, extraction and overall production are worse for the climate than the production of fossil fuel-powered vehicles.  

A study from The Wall Street Journal in 2019 revealed that 40% of the total climate impact caused by the production of lithium-ion batteries comes from the mining process itself.

Indigenous communities are under threat

The indigenous people of South America are negatively impacted by lithium mining, and the practice has driven hundreds off the land that they once called home. Mining giants in the region originally pledged to consult indigenous communities over lithium mining on their land to make sure it was environmentally sound.  

However, these corporations have refused to give local people voice in how they are operated. Community leaders have demanded that profits be channelled their way. 

The indigenous community in the Chilean Atacama desert has seen two mining companies ove into the area. The head of the environmental unit of the Atacama Indigenous Council, Francis Mandoca, has said that the lithium mines are branded as “sustainable” but they are not, as they in his view the mines ruin one zone to satisfy another.  

The community feels frustrated and concerned because the ponds they used have now been contaminated with harmful chemicals, making them unusable.

Social struggles and human rights issues

The surge in lithium demand fuels social conflicts, echoing the historical pattern of conflict around natural resources. "Green Imperialism", as detailed by author Richard Grove in his book of the same name, is a pattern where indigenous peoples are displaced from their ancestral lands and communities in the name of resource extraction. According to a 2023 report by parent company GlobalData, this is the issue that lies at the heart of protests in Chile and Bolivia.  

The power dynamics are clear: mining companies, driven by economic interests, wield significant power and influence, while indigenous communities lack the resources and legal support to protect their rights. This then perpetuates the exploitation and marginalisation of these communities.

Sustaining ecological preservation

Indigenous peoples play a pivotal role in ecological preservation due to their deep-rooted connection with the land and the wealth of generational knowledge they possess. Across centuries, they have cultivated a profound understanding of ecosystems, plants and wildlife, passing down valuable wisdom through generations.  

This traditional knowledge serves as a repository of sustainable practices, helping to preserve biodiversity and maintain delicate ecological balances. Their holistic approach incorporates spiritual beliefs, ethics and rituals, ensuring the preservation of natural habitats. 

In Chile, the displacement of indigenous peoples disrupted these holistic practices, leading to a drastic decline in nearby pond fish, endangering the flamingo species in Salars De Atacama. 

In light of all these challenges, balancing the global demand for lithium with the preservation of South America’s environment and the well-being of its indigenous communities is not only a moral imperative but a necessity for a harmonious and sustainable future. It is a stark reminder of the urgent need for sustainable practices and the protection of both nature and human rights.