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Chile to protect some salt flats, but selection lacks data, scientists say

  • Ministers overseeing the Chilean government’s sustainability and climate change efforts have proposed a network of protected areas comprising 27 salt flats and lagoons, part of the country’s National Lithium Strategy.
  • Another 26 salt flats will be exclusively used for exploration and extraction of lithium by national and international companies; two state-owned mining companies will lead operations in the country’s largest lithium reserves.
  • Scientists and experts, however, have criticized the decision for not relying on scientific data.

A group of Chilean ministers overseeing sustainability and climate change recently announced the creation of a network of protected salt flats, one of the main environmental commitments of the government’s National Lithium Strategy of 2023. Along with the salt flats protected area network, the council of ministers also announced that national and international companies will bid on 26 salt flats through a special lithium operation contract, or CEOL. Chilean state companies will exploit seven salt flats. Salt flats are key areas for extracting the lithium powering the global lithium battery industry.

Currently, only around 8% of Chile’s salt flats are protected. The new network of protected salt flats will raise that to 25%. This also aligns with the 30×30 goal as outlined by the global Convention on Biological Diversity, which ensures that at least 30% of the planet’s ecosystems are protected by 2030.

However, experts, academics and environmental defenders say the selection of protected areas lacks scientific grounding.

“There have not been enough scientific studies on the salt flats, which are considered extremely fragile ecosystems, before taking any steps on this issue,” said Ingrid Garcés from the University of Antofagasta’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

The government’s announcements

Chile is believed to have the world’s richest lithium reserves. Here, lithium is found in the brine of the salt flats, that is, in the saltwater. This makes it much easier to extract than lithium in rocks, and therefore more economically viable, said Garcés, who has carried out scientific research on the Surire and Maricunga salt flats for eight years. Chile currently extracts lithium from just the Atacama salt flat; even so, the country’s national production represents more than 30% of the global market.

In April 2023, President Gabriel Boric announced the creation of the National Lithium Strategy, seeking to transform Chile into the world’s largest lithium producer (although it has the largest reserves, Chile is second in production to Australia). This strategy, according to the president, would be “a crusade” to explore Chile’s more than 60 salt flats and evaluate their extractive potential.

According to the minister of Mines, Aurora Williams, the country could feasibly become the world leader in lithium production in a few years.

“In 2030 we will have almost 70% of production, which will double by 2034,” Williams said at a conference at the presidential office in Santiago.

Salar de Atacama. Foto: Consejo de pueblos Atacameños
Atacama salt flat. Image courtesy of the Atacameño Peoples Council.

But the country also pledged to create a network of protected salt flats as part of its overall protected-areas strategy. The council of ministers for sustainability has proposed that the network include 15 high-altitude wetlands in the Antofagasta region, 11 in the Atacama region, and the Lagunilla lagoon in the Tarapacá region. Fourteen of these are salt flats and 13 are lagoons. Of these, three already fall under some category of protection, including the Tara salt flat (a national reserve), and the Atacama and Maricunga salt flats, parts of which lie within adjacent protected areas.

Tania Sauma, content adviser at the environment ministry, highlighted the importance of extremophiles when talking about the biodiversity of these ecosystems. Extremophiles are microorganisms that have adapted to living in extreme environments and “produce biomolecules that can be used in various industries such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and mining,” she said. Sauma adds that the protection of these extremophiles represents “a genetic heritage.”

Maricunga salt flat. Image by Barinia Montoya.

However, the council of ministers also announced that the unprotected areas of the Atacama and Maricunga salt flats would be classified as “strategic.” This implies that state-owned mining giant Codelco will have a majority stake in the development of lithium extraction at these two sites.

The Atacama salt flat is the only one in the country that has so far been exploited. Currently, two private companies, Albermarle Chile and Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM), operate the mines there. Codelco has reached an agreement with SQM to join production in 2025. The state company also cemented its presence in the Maricunga salt flat, Chile’s second-largest lithium reserve, through the acquisition of the Salar Blanco project.

Codelco has also taken control of a third lithium deposit: the Pedernales salt flat located in the Atacama region. Another state-owned mining company, ENAMI, will continue to develop the Altoandinos salt flat exploration project, consisting of the Grande, Infieles, Isla and Aguilar salt flats.

Surire salt flat. Image by Davide Zanchettin via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Together, these projects make up approximately 49% of the surface area of Chile’s salt flats and have the greatest productive potential, according to the government.

“The use of low-environmental-impact technology will be ensured” in extraction efforts, said Maisa Rojas, the environment minister and chair of the council of ministers overseeing sustainability and climate change.

The government also announced that 26 additional salt flats will be used exclusively for exploration and extraction by national and international companies. These don’t qualify as strategic or protected, but there’s currently no public information about which salt flats fall under this category. Experts and civil organizations have criticized the lack of transparency so far.

“It is complicated to announce a number of salt flats without knowing which they are and what the extraction conditions will be,” said Antonio Pulgar, a lawyer at the University of Chile and researcher at FIMA, an organization that works on access to environmental justice.

Flavia Liberona, executive director of the Terram Foundation, which advocates for sustainable development, said the announcements show “for now, the most traditional and least sustainable form of development is winning the lithium game.”

Scientists and conservationists ask for scientific support

Scientists and conservationists have expressed worry about the criteria used to determine which salt flats will be protected and which ones exploited.

According to the council of ministers, four variables determined which salt flats would be protected: biodiversity conservation, water protection, soil carbon sequestration, and finally, social and cultural benefits.

On the other hand, the government determined the salt flats slated for exploitation by the presence of any mining operations. They also looked at salt flats near borders, as neighboring countries could be developing their own projects as well.

Pulgar said he believes the criteria used by the ministers “have no relation to environmental variables,” despite what they say. He pointed specifically to the lack of consideration for flamingo nesting sites. This is particularly concerning given that three of the world’s six species of flamingo breed and feed in the salt flats of northern Chile: the Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis), the puna flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi) and the Andean flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus), the first two of which are listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List, and the last, vulnerable.

Flamingos in flight at the Surire salt flat. Image by Rodrigo Ordenes via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

“This lack of ecological criteria is worrying because it also makes us realize the lack of clarity on the limits of a salt flat’s ecosystem,” Pulgar said.

Ramón Morales Balzacar, coordinator of the Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats (OPSAL), said we still don’t understand the complexity of these ecosystems. He added that the establishment of protected areas doesn’t exclude extractive projects, casting more doubt on future preservation.

Pulgar noted that salt flats in Chile are classified as mineral deposits under the Mining Code. This, he said, implies that “their nature as a wetland is not recognized.”

“They are aquatic ecosystems which meadows, wetlands, underground and underwater waters all flow into, with their own hydrogeological systems that create specific biogeochemical conditions for each of these salt flats,” he added.

Pulgar said he believes the exploitation of the 26 salt flats “will happen much faster” than protections for the others. He cited “grave situations” already taking place in salt flats chosen for exploitation, and pointed to the Ascotán salt flat, home to a fish species, Orestias ascotanensis, found nowhere else in the world but the streams around the salt flat. There, he said, the OCA project has already completed a sampling program of the surface of the salt flat in search of lithium.
“It is a real, deep and alarming threat to see how the National Lithium Strategy is being implemented,” Pulgar said.

The letter

Days before the announcement by the council of ministers, more than 140 scientists, researchers and academics sent a letter to the government calling for the urgent protection of salt flats and for the “incorporation of scientific evidence and indigenous peoples’ knowledge to ensure the protection of these ecosystems.”

One of the signers, Verónica Molina, general director of the Environmental HUB at the University of Playa Ancha (UPLA), told Mongabay that “specific environmental criteria” need to be included, since “we must consider that we are facing massive impacts to unique ecosystems.”

She added that while scientists celebrated the progress of creating new protected areas, “those of us who signed this letter also believe it is essential to protect basins according to the precautionary principle,” because of “the irreparable damage” that several basins have already suffered due to the overextraction of water for copper mining.

Another petition signatory, Beatriz Díez, a specialist in microbial ecology and environmental microbiology in extreme systems, said the salt flats contain not only minerals but also a high concentration of organic matter that supports biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles.

In fact, she said, salt flats contain endemic species that “cannot even be found in other areas of the country,” such as the O. ascotanensis fish. For this reason, she said, “failing to protect these ecosystems would be an irreparable mistake.”

There remains much at stake, according to the researchers.

“The entire planet is experiencing a climate and ecological crisis that poses crucial challenges such as the preservation of biodiversity in delicate ecosystems like the salt flats,” the scientists’ letter reads. “This is even more crucial in Chile, one of the countries that will suffer the greatest loss of continental water sources.”

Banner image of the Tara salt flat, courtesy of the Chilean National Forest Corporation.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on April 11, 2024.

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