The ‘Lithium Triangle’ is a commercial entity across Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, so defined by the mining companies that exploit in this area between the three different countries, salt pans particularly rich in content of such rare mineral.
The two companies active in the exploitation of the Salar de Atacama are the Chilean State owned SoQuimiCh - in short SQM, which has a long history of mining in the country; and Albermarle, chemical corporation based in the United States. The salt pan contributes to over the 50% of global production.
The same area of the ‘Litihum Triangle’ roughly corresponds to the Puña de Atacama, a territorial entity defined by the remote highlands of the Andean range across the same three countries: Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.
This isolated, remote plateau is inhabited by the Atacameños, indigenous population which settled from ancestral times in the small oases of the highland desert.
Alike the other salt flats, the Salar de Atacama is a depression on the highlands that constitutes the basin of a dried ancient lake. It is a closed basin, which means that the scarce rivers and seasonal streams from the mountain range drain under the soil surface of the salt pan. Lithium mining has been active since the late 1980's.
On the plateau that slopes up to the volcanos in the East side of the salt flat, there is a constellation of 8 villages that forms the indigenous community of the Salar de Atacama. Villages are small, with a population that varies between 50 (Tilomonte) and 2000 people (San Pedro).
Image: North | South section through the salt flat looking East towards the Andean range showing the position of the villages and their reference mountain.
Each village has a ‘field of action’ the lands where the village activities materialise. Such ‘field’ is a disperse portion of territory which goes from the mountain peaks to the salar core. It is recognised according to ancestral uses, such as agriculture and grazing, that are clashing with mining concessions.
Image: North | South section through the salt flat looking East towards the Andean range showing the typical territory of the village.
Elevation: 6000-3500 m asl
The mountains are the sacred space which source abundant and rich goods. They are the element that provides and at such thanked and celebrated with rituals. Mountains are the source of minerals, food for animals and human beings, of medicinal plants and water, through rain and snow.
For their elevations they are subjected to weather conditions that are different from ones at lower altitudes and the dry depression of the salt flat. Due to the accumulation of clouds the microclimate is misty and foggy, temperatures are low, it is often windy.
Elevation: 3200-2500 m asl
Ayllu translates both as community and oasis. It is a territory-based, extended family that forms the basis of productive relations even today and was conceived in terms of common descent from oppositional but complementary mythological ancestors.
This landscape level is composed of disperse parts within short distances, and interpreted as a unit. Again, the distinction between what lies above (plateau) and what lies below (quebrada) is crucial.
The permanent habitation space of the village and the terraces field forms the chacra. Agriculture today is still the main source of income together with mining and grazing. The terraces and the water are collective resources managed by and within the ayllu.
Each ayllu has a complex system of canals and regulations to determine times and modes of irrigation.
Elevation: 2500-2400 m asl
The alluvial fans is an idle expanse in the activity field of the community. It is a land to be crossed to find resources.
As space of travel, this area was crossed by the Inca trail, major link of the Empire from Cuzco to what is today Santiago. The trail is now replaced by two main roads connecting the villages of the salar on a North|South axis.
The water is progressively absorbed underground reaching the aquifer below the salt pan crust. Its presence is manifested only in traces readable in the marks it leaves or in the lone presence of a Tamarugo tree.
In the last 20 years, since the beginning of heavy extraction of brine, the rare vegetation has reduced further due to the lowering of the acquirer table for over-exploitation in lithium mining.
Analysis of vegetation and water surfaces through photo processing of landsat images. 1993|2015. In the 22 years both water surface and vegetation cover have significantly reduced.
white: deep water / snow, off white: shallow waters, green: vegetation.
In addition to overexploitation of water, the road infrastructures are disrupting its course, driving it to accumulate in areas where it would not normally flow.
The phenomenon is causing fragmentation of the eco-systems and the creation of new ones: small new patches of vegetation along the road on the formerly barren land.
This fragmentation has a particular impact on the landscape level below, the lagoons.