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The Puna is not a Triangle

Under the guise of the ‘green’ transition and implementing pathways to decarbonisation, a new frontier of capitalist expansion has emerged, in the form of a planetary race for minerals such as cobalt, copper, rare earths and in particular, lithium. Most of the world’s exploitable reserves of lithium are located in an area commercially known as the ‘lithium triangle’, a geometric figure delineated by the salares (salt flats) of Uyuni in Bolivia, Atacama in Chile and Hombre Muerto in Argentina. Salares are dried lake beds with underground reservoirs containing high concentrations of dissolved salts, such as lithium, potassium and sodium.

In 2017, I created the Lithium Triangle research studio, at the Royal College of Art, London, with the goal of examining the socio-environmental impacts of lithium extraction. This was a collaboration of environmental architecture students and teachers from the RCA, with lawyers, archaeologists, indigenous leaders and others working on the Atacama Desert in Chile. At the time there was very little being published (both academically and in newspapers) on the negative impacts of lithium extraction, and so it seemed crucial to foreground the realities of the ‘green transition’.

While the online platform showcases most of the collective and individual works we’ve developed during these years, in what follows I will speak to the aspects I found more significant. Our work focused mostly on the Salar de Atacama. Its hyper-arid climatic conditions make it perfect for lithium-rich brine extraction. This entails pumping the salt rich brines from beneath the salar’s crust, into a series of large, shallow ponds. Initially containing 200 to +1,000 parts per million (ppm), the lithium brine solution is concentrated by solar evaporation to achieve a ratio of up to 6,000 ppm lithium after 12 – 16 months. This means that on average, for each ton of lithium, 500,000 gallons of water are required. Lithium and copper mining corporations hold most rights to extract water from the aquifer, facilitating rates of water pumping that overtake its recharge capacity. Water is crucial to all mining operations, not only for material processing, for dust setting, and for drinking. In other words, obscene rates of water extraction are taking place in the driest desert in the world. And across the region, lithium extraction is expanding into dozens of other salares – including Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, containing the largest resources of lithium in the world, and whose government recently signed (January 2023) a deal for lithium extraction with a consortium led by CATL, the world’s largest battery manufacturer. Following from silver, gold, nitrate and copper, lithium continues the long history of extraction in the Atacama.

Governments and mining companies have historically described the desert as empty – despoblado -, occupied only by small groups of ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘primitive’ peoples. That such depictions and their explicit racism are aimed at easing the processes of land appropriation for the extraction of resources is abundantly clear. The desert has always been the most exaggerated figure of the colonial-extractive gaze, a world described as inhuman, the presupposed impossibility of inhabitation justifying its role as a sacrificial zone. In my mind it is obvious how in its pure geometric construction, the idea of a ‘lithium triangle’ captures the essence of colonial plunder: the projection of the extractive gaze over territories and communities, a pure geometry that sees as much as it ‘unsees’, that in the same gesture of exhuming precious riches, bringing them from below, erases all those others considers un-precious, be human or other, made inanimate, inhuman, invisible, irrelevant.

While the studio’s broader investigation has looked at lithium across local and global scales, both contemporary and historical, design efforts focused on strategies to take back the land from the control of mining corporations. Our collaborations with advocacy teams and indigenous organisations explored architectures of environmental sensing and monitoring to be used by locals against mining companies. Drawing on the expanding field of counter-mapping as well as on the emerging forensic approach to architectural activism, in its first stage, the project made use of remote-sensing, multispectral analysis and GIS to produce reports on environmental change to be used in legal disputes. We equally proposed tools to allow ground observations to be interpreted in relation to invisible data such as concession boundaries, aquifer location, soil depth, real-time measurements of water and wind, and vegetation health in time.

Many of our students suggested collaborative devices to bring data together, including online platforms, apps, and AR systems. We explored how these might enter into composition with non-academic modes of knowledge production, including oral histories, environmental knowledge from farmers, and Atacameño knowledge traditions of reciprocity, care and respect for the ancestors. The other key component of the work was to complement struggles for land with proposals for environmental care and maintenance. In collaboration with the ayllus of Tulor and Beter, San Pedro de Atacama, we redeployed conceptual and practical aspects of Atacameño environmental thinking to address contemporary challenges around land management, desertification, water scarcity and reproductive justice. Many proposals focused on the possibilities of research-based tourism, environmental pedagogies and new types of botanical economies, for the constitution of alternatives to the lack of local jobs outside of extractive industries.

Overall, we were able to confirm previous findings on the impacts of extraction. Through multi-year remote-sensing analysis we noted that the extraction of water for lithium and copper mining has impacted the lagoons and water table in the Salar de Atacama, how the depth of the water table has been steadily decreasing and how vegetation cover has decreased across the edges of the Salar. We encountered cases where animal and microbial ecosystems have been affected by the reduction in water levels, by shifts in the flow of water and by changes in the water’s chemical composition; we observed how dust and particulate materials released by mining activities generate a white haze that is permanently over the Salar. We confirmed how water is extracted not just in the Salar, but also upstream, near the small oases that surround it – precarious settlements that are very much dependent on the little water that trickles down from the top of the mountains. We confirmed that comparatively, Atacameño communities circumscribing the Salar de Atacama hold an amount of water rights barely sufficient for their survival.

On a personal note, the most important aspect I’ve noticed was how mental ecologies have deteriorated across the Salar’s communities. Little academic attention has been dedicated to the entanglement of social, material and mental ecologies, be it in the Atacama or at large. And even less on the mental and psychological impacts of extractivism. And yet it is undeniable. Extractivist mental pollution is manifest in prevailing suspicion and intra-community conflicts centred on differing relations to mining companies. There are multiple reasons for this: sometimes it’s a matter of differing positions on the buying of land by mining companies; sometimes it’s the result of the direct impacts of extraction over agricultural modes of existence; other times it is due to the heavy burden of contesting extractivism; and frequently it is a problem of deciding on compensations, seen by some as a lesser evil and the opportunity to benefit at least in some aspect from a dire situation, and by others, as a betrayal to the struggle for the protection of ancestral territories. All these aspects are magnified by both state and mining companies’ political and financial pressure over local leaders and representatives. In the Atacama as in every other area of resource extraction, the arrival of mining signals a drastic reduction in the range of possible futures, a trauma that is both to the environment as it is to its peoples.

This project came to an end in 2022. And yet, it highlighted the importance of resisting the multiplication of ‘lithium triangles’ across the world. The Atacama is one among many other territories across the world that stand in the frontlines of a mode of development from which those affected stand to gain very little. For the past couple of years, I have engaged in similar struggles in the north of Portugal, where I am from, and where several lithium mining projects are threatening unique ancestral environments. While too much focus on lithium might miss the forest for the trees (the real problem is the capitalist dependency on extractivism, and lithium is only one among many other metals needed for the current ‘transition’) I note how the hypocrisy with which it is marketed as ‘green & clean’ has led many people to join the struggle. Many across the world are increasingly ‘speaking truth to power’ regarding the cynicism of a ‘green transition’ that is led by extractive businesses instead of real environmental or climate concerns. The recently signed Jadar Declaration by Serbian, Chilean, Argentinian, Portuguese and US based environmentalist groups speaks to the importance of international alliances. But there is much more that needs to be done.

As a researcher my objectivity does not rely on some sort of neutral detachment, but on taking a clear stand. We urgently need the many worlds of the world making common cause if we are to resist the digging machines of capitalism. Extractivism is constantly inventing ‘lithium triangles’ and similar pseudo-geographies to justify the creation of sacrifice zones. But these are real environments, inhabited by many different beings and forms of life, be it microbial, vegetable or human, ancestral, earthly or celestial. The desert is not a triangle; Uyuni is not a triangle, and surely the Puna de Atacama is not a triangle.