Rare Andean flamingos (Phoenicoparrus andinus) and James’ flamingos (P. jamesi) are now threatened by habitat loss in Chile’s Salar de Atacama region. Lithium mining in that area draws down the water table. That reduces the areas of the flamingo feeding zones. Consequently, the bird populations are declining. Birds die in lock-step with the amount of groundwater pumped. The lithium mining process uses evaporation to produce the lithium. Every gallon of groundwater pumped is lost forever in one of the driest places on Earth. The mining also deprives indigenous peoples of vital water sources.
The good news is that there are technical solutions. Instead of wasting all that water—a severely limited resource in the Atacama—a simple solar still could recover most of it as pure, distilled water. Some brine remains after a year or more of evaporation. Injecting the waste water into the briny water table can help. Even reverse osmosis—already used for desalination—has potential as an alternative mining technique.
What are the options to make lithium mining more socially and environmentally responsible? Direct action against mining companies is one possibility. The six largest companies operating in South America are Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium, Tianqi Lithium, Albemarle, SQM, Allkem, Livent. One problem is that several of these companies are Chinese-owned. Chinese businesses are nearly impossible to influence. Another is that mining companies only respond to market pressures. They ignore all special interest groups like environmentalists and social activists.
Another possibility is through stock ownership. Shareholders of publicly owned companies can submit proposals for proxy votes. This process can work, but it take decades to effect change. Most company boards of directors recommend votes against shareholder proposals. Typically, most investors don’t research the proposals. They vote against them, as the board suggests.
The greatest leverage in this issue is with the companies that use lithium in their products. Think Apple, Microsoft, Tesla, GM, Ford, and other tech manufacturers. These companies do care about consumer opinions. They care about their reputations. They are already moving in the direction of greater responsibility in social and environmental arenas. Direct action and stock ownership campaigns can result in real progress.
You can find activist groups that will consider taking up the fight for better lithium mining. Join one of those groups and encourage your friends to join and provide support in the form of money and activism. Together we can protect the people and amazing birds living in the most inhospitable places on Earth.
Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash