Chile writes new constitution, confronts climate change

SALAR DE ATACAMA, Chile – Rarely does any country have the opportunity to state its ideals as a nation and write its own new constitution. Almost never the climate and ecological crisis take center stage.

That is, so far, in Chile, where a national renewal is underway. After months of protesting environmental and social grievances, 155 Chileans were elected to write a new constitution as they declared a “climate and ecological emergency”.

Their work will not only shape how this country of 19 million people is governed. It will also determine the future of a soft, lustrous metal, lithium, lurking in the saltwater beneath this vast ethereal desert beside the Andes.

Lithium is an essential component of batteries. And as the global economy searches for alternatives to fossil fuels to slow climate change, lithium demand and prices are skyrocketing.

Mining companies in Chile, the world’s second-largest lithium producer after Australia, are keen to increase output, as do politicians who see mining as vital to the nation’s prosperity. However, they face growing opposition from Chileans, who argue that the economic model based on the exploitation of the country’s natural resources has created excessive environmental costs and is not traditional. benefits for all citizens, including indigenous peoples.

And so the Constitutional Convention determines what kind of country Chile wants to be. Members of the Convention will decide many things, including: How should fishing be regulated, and what voice should local communities have over fishing? Should Chile maintain a presidential system? Should nature have rights? What about future generations?

Around the world, countries face similar dilemmas – in the forests of Central Africa, in Native American territories in the United States – as they try to resolve the crisis. climate crisis without repeating the mistakes of the past. For Chile, the problem now is to shape the national charter. “We have to assume that human activity causes damage, so how much damage do we want to cause?” Cristina Dorador Ortiz, a microbiologist who studies salt flats and is part of the Constitutional Convention. “How much damage is enough to live well?”

Then there is water. In the face of devastating droughts caused by climate change, the Convention will decide who owns Chile’s water. It will also consider some more basic things: Exactly To be country?

Chile’s current constitution was written in 1980, by those chosen by the then military ruler, Augusto Pinochet. It opens up the country to mining investments and allows the purchase and sale of water rights.

Chile prospered by harnessing the riches of nature: copper and coal, salmon and avocado. But even as the country becomes one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations, frustration grows over inequality. Areas rich in minerals are known as “sacrifice zones” of environmental degradation. Rivers began to dry up.

Anger flared up into massive protests starting in 2019. A nationwide referendum followed, electing a diverse panel to rewrite the constitution.

On December 19 came another turning point. Voters elected Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old former student activist, as president. He lobbied to expand the social safety net, increase taxes and mining royalties, and found a national lithium company.

The morning after the win, the share price of the country’s largest lithium producer, Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile, or SQM, fell 15%.

One-fifth of the world’s lithium is produced by SQM, much of it in the Atacama desert in northern Chile in the shadow of ancient volcanoes, including the oldest and still active volcano, Lascar . Lickanantay, indigenous to the area, calls Lascar the father of all volcanoes.

Viewed from above, the mines looked as if someone had spread a blanket of blue and green cotton that sparkled in the middle of this pale desert.

The wealth lies in the salt water underground. Day and night, SQM pumps salt water, along with fresh water from five wells. The pipes carry the brine to a series of ponds.

Then the sun goes to work.

Atacama has highest solar radiation levels on Earth. The water evaporates amazingly quickly, leaving behind mineral deposits. Magnesium escapes from the pond. Also potassium. Lithium remains in a viscous yellow-green puddle, SQM converted into white lithium carbonate powder for overseas battery manufacturers.

SQM was a state-owned producer of fertilizer chemicals until Mr. Pinochet passed it on to his son-in-law, Julio Ponce Lerou, in 1983. It was recently fined by Chile’s stock market regulator and by US Securities and Exchange Commission for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Mr. Ponce, no longer chairman, retains 30% ownership.

Today, SQM is entering a lithium bull market. Carlos Díaz, vice president in charge of lithium, said the company is looking to increase capacity from 140,000 tons of lithium carbonate to 180,000 tons by 2022. Mr. Díaz said the company wants to “make lithium as green as possible”. , including reducing saltwater extraction by half by 2030 and becoming “carbon neutral” by 2040.

There’s a good reason. Nearby, a copper mine, called Escondida, was fined $93 million for exploiting water and causing what a Chilean court called “irreparable damage.”

The mining industry is preparing for change. The Legislature is implementing a law to increase royalties. And the Constitutional Convention is weighing provisions that would require more local decision-making.

Both could reduce Chile’s attractiveness to investors, said Joaquin Villarino, president of the Mining Council, the industry lobbying body. He is particularly worried that some members of the Convention appear to be completely against mining, although he did not name anyone. “I hope this is not what we are going to have in our Constitution,” he said, “because Chile is a mining country.”

The convention also has the potential to make water a public good. But another question will pose more to the industry: Is brine — the saltwater beneath the desert — technically water? Mining companies insist it is not, because it is suitable for both human and animal consumption.

“There is a clear separation between what comes from the mountains, which is continental water, and what you get in salt water in Salar de Atacama,” said Mr. Díaz.

Brine mining is now governed by the mining code. The new constitution could change that. It can be called salt water.

In the shadow of Lascar, not far from the SQM mine, glittered a bright white salt-encrusted lagoon. Jordán Jofré Lique, a geologist with the Atacama Indigenous Council, walks along its edge. A lone flamingo crosses the salt crust.

Birds of prey, mainly brine shrimp, this afternoon the lake was unusually dry. Mr. Lique, 28, is not sure why. But it worries him. Health salar (flat salt in spanish) constantly worries him, considering two main forces are beyond his control: planetary warming and the mining industry extracting water here in one of the driest regions in the world. The flamingo gave up its search, spread its pale pink wings and flew.

Mr. Lique, a Lickanantay, knows the traces of flat salt. His grandfather herded sheep and goats here.

He was once meant to work for a mining company. It is a path to a good salary. Instead, he studied the impact of mining on people’s land himself. “Maybe it’s an act of God or a circumstance of life,” he said.

Some natives say that miners have divided their communities with offers of money and jobs. Mr. Lique’s organization is shunned by some because it receives research funding from Albemarle, an American company that also mines lithium locally.

His team has installed more than a dozen sensors to measure water level, salinity and temperature. He is particularly worried about the “mixing zone,” a sensitive ecosystem where freshwater coexists with saltwater underground. Bright evaporation ponds act like mirrors, which Mr. Lique suspects heat the air.

Independent research has found reduce soil moisture and land cover in the salt flats, along with increased daytime temperatures, evidence of a strong correlation between expansion of lithium mining and drying of the area.

A government census has recorded a slight decline in the number of Andean flamingos in the Atacama since 1997, while their numbers have remained flat elsewhere in Chile. Alejandra Castro, a ranger in charge of a flamingo sanctuary, suspects climate change.

SQM says its monitors show a slight decrease in brine levels in the mixing area, and flora and fauna remain healthy.

The Atacama was full of surprises. Parts of it were too dry, the ground sharp and craggy, devoid of vegetation. Then the landscape changes dramatically, giving way to ankle-high bushes, or a grove of towering tamarugo trees. A dirt road zigzags through bare hills, taking you suddenly into a ravine that carries the mountain’s spring water.

Mr. Lique sees the dual effects of climate change. The water on his family’s farm, near the mine, evaporates faster. An alfalfa crop did not grow this year. Short corn.

But Mr. Lique is most worried about how over-extraction of brine could change the delicate balance of sun, soil and water, especially in the face of climate change. “The best-case scenario is it doesn’t get worse than this,” he said. “The worst-case scenario is everything dries up.”

Dr. Dorador, a member of the Constitutional Convention, walks through a busy market in her hometown, Antofagasta. “The Constitution is the most important law of the country,” she told a man selling mangoes.

He listened politely.

Dr Dorador, 41, describes what the council is discussing – water, housing, healthcare. She explains the timeline: draft the constitution in July, followed by a national vote.

Behind her, a man shouted the price of corn. Another is selling rabbits. A woman talks about shoulder pain. A few told her they didn’t have the time.

Dr. Dorador was intrigued by microorganisms that had existed for millions of years in the salt flats. “We can learn a lot about climate change by studying salares, because they’re already radicalized,” she said. “You can find clues to the past and clues to the future.”

Dr. Dorador is competing to be the president of the conference. She wants the constitution to recognize that “man is part of nature.” She rose to prominence when asked if lithium mining was necessary to get out of fossil fuel mining. Of course, the world should stop burning oil and gas, but not by ignoring the unknown ecological costs. “Someone buys an electric car and feels great because they are saving the planet,” she said. “At the same time an entire ecosystem is damaged. It is a great paradox.”

Indeed, the questions facing this Convention are not unique to Chile. The world faces the same reckoning in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss, amid growing social inequality: Is the search for climate fixes worth it? requires a re-examination of humanity’s relationship with nature?

“We face some very complex problems of the 21st century,” said Maisa Rojas, a climate scientist at the University of Chile. ready.”

John Bartlett contributed reporting. Chile writes new constitution, confronts climate change

Russell Falcon

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