The Salar del Hombre Muerto is a high-altitude wetland located and shared between the provinces of Catamarca and Salta and integrates the water sub-basin of the Hombre Muerto  and the glacial sub-basin of the Salar Pocitos . Since ancestral times, the native communities have lived and developed their community, cultural and economic activities there.
Located at an altitude of between 3,400 and 4,600 m.a.s.l., in an area with a harsh climate, extreme dryness (rainfall of 150 mm per year) and a wide daily temperature range (minimum temperatures of -20º C and maximum temperatures of 32º C), this salt flat is the largest lithium reservoir on the planet after Uyuni (Bolivia), Atacama (Chile), Rincón (Argentina), Taijanair and Zhabuye (China).
In 1997, Minera del Altiplano (currently a subsidiary of the transnational company Livent) began mining lithium in the salt flats using millions of litres of water (salt and fresh) in the extraction and processing of the mineral (evaporite method).
The Salar del Hombre Muerto has a negative natural water balance because it evaporates 7 (seven) times more water than enters the system due to low rainfall. This natural water deficit has been compounded by the extraction of enormous amounts of fresh and saltwater from the system, further aggravating its fragile natural dynamics. The extraction of fresh water for processing lithium concentrate has already caused irreversible environmental damage by completely drying up the Trapiche River floodplain due to the withdrawal of surface and subway water (380,000 litres of water per hour) by the Livent company.
One of the first conflicts between the companies and the local population has been the territorial enclosure. In 2005, Catamarca residents complained that Minera del Altiplano had installed a metal perimeter fence on their territory that prevented schoolchildren, local farmers and tourists from passing through the only road between the Salar del Hombre Muerto School, the village of Antofagasta de la Sierra and Provincial Route No. 43.
However, the conflict worsened in 2018, when neighbours of the village of Antofagasta and the cacique of the Atacameños del Altiplano Indigenous community (Román Guitian) became aware of the environmental damage caused by Livent company which was drying up the Trapiche River floodplain. The same company now intends to triple the project.
Regarding the environmental impacts caused by lithium mining in the Salar, some of the most notorious effects in the area include: acceleration of groundwater flow, scarcity and/or irreversible disappearance of the scarce water resources in the area, and contamination (via salinization) of the freshwater layers of the salt flats, putting at risk an extremely fragile ecosystem, negatively affecting animals (llamas, disturbing bird migration patterns) and compromising the subsistence economies of Indigenous and peasant communities. This transnational lithium mining has been installed in an area characterized by the presence of the Indigenous Kolla Atacameña population, who practice an ancestral economy based on livestock raising (mainly goats, sheep and camelids (llamas and vicuñas), agriculture (corn, wheat, potatoes, beans, quinoa, onions), textile handicrafts and salt extraction.
However, there are currently 8 (eight) lithium extraction projects that are in different stages (see photo: map of Salar del Hombre Muerto Mining Projects), which significantly worsens the situation of locals and the Indigenous community. In both "Proyecto Ampliación Fénix" and "Sal de Vida" (Livent and Galaxy), the companies are requesting permits to extract fresh water from the Los Patos River by installing aqueducts that connect the river to the processing plants. Of the eight projects mentioned, two of them are located in the northern sector of the Salar in territory shared by the provinces of Salta and Catamarca, Proyecto Tolillar (expansion) of Alpha Lithium Corporation  and Hombre Muerto Norte of Lithium South Development Corporation, both Canadian companies. In the western sector of the Salar are the Fénix project, already mentioned, and the Hombre Muerto Oeste project of the Australian company Galan Lithium Limited. In the eastern sector of the Salar del Hombre Muerto is the Sal de Oro project of the Korean company Posco, the Sal de Vida project of the Australian company Galaxy Resources Limited  associated with Orocobre Limited  and the Virgen del Valle project of Minera Santa Rita STL .
Finally, to the south of the Salar, along the lower sub-basin of the Los Patos River, is the Candelas project, also developed by the Australian company Galan Lithium Limited. The presence of these mining companies means that the entire surface of the Salar del Hombre Muerto and the lower part of the sub-basins that flow have been concessioned for the exploitation of lithium in brine. In the review of the social and environmental impact studies of each of the mining projects mentioned above, there is no analysis or evaluation of cumulative and synergistic impacts. However, the eight projects share the same basin and the same resource, water, in breach of the Protocol of Good Practices for Lithium Exploration and Production in the Salars of Jujuy, Salta and Catamarca*.
Regarding the authorizations, it should be noted that both the Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) issued by the Ministry of Mining of the province for each stage of the projects (prospecting, exploration and exploitation) as well as the governmental decrees , were granted without an adequate assessment of the cumulative environmental impacts, lacking a hydrogeological baseline of the Salar del Hombre Muerto sub-basin (where the lithium exploitation projects are located) and of the Punilla river sub-basin (where most of the population of the department of Antofagasta de la Sierra lives and is considered an area of "indirect influence," i.e. a region that can be environmentally affected).
Lack of FPIC
Likewise, all of these permits were granted without ever having held the corresponding public hearings with the residents of Antofagasta de la Sierra or prior, free and informed consultation (FPIC) with the Atacameño del Altiplano indigenous community, which ancestrally inhabits the Salar. This is in clear violation of the provisions of the National Constitution and International Treaties, the General Environmental Law No. 25,675, the Glaciers Law No. 26,639 and ILO Convention 169 .
Despite having a history of environmental damage (drying up of the Trapiche River floodplain), the national and provincial governments fail to comply with environmental regulations and the principles that govern them, especially the precautionary principle.
Violence and criminalization
On the other hand, over the last few years, there have been several episodes of institutional violence and criminalization of those who defend water and territory . On October 31, 2019, several members of the Indigenous community - Evelia, Hortencia, Santiago and Hipólito Morales - were arrested  in their own home through abusive and illegal use of force by the Antofagasta police and transferred to the town of Belén as part of a criminal case (of which they had not been previously summoned or notified). This favours the mining company as it allows it to use the ancestral land of the Morales family as a road for the passage of trucks (commonly called "mining bypass") .
Then, on November 28, 2019, Mr. Hugo and Mr. Ramón Calpanchay , members of the Atacameños del Altiplano native community, were detained in their community lands without receiving a prior summons and due to a complaint made by a mining company worker.
On December 19, 2019, Mr. Román Guitian (cacique of the community) and his entire family were chased through the community territory (area near the mining company) by two police officers from the Antofagasta security force, who were in uniform, but travelling in a private van belonging to the mining company. This is clearly not regulated, illegitimate and shows that there is a link between the security force and a private company.
Also, neighbours of Antofagasta de la Sierra have repeatedly reported the contamination caused by the dumping of liquid effluents on the same salt flat, an amount of 820cm3 per hour of chemical waste. This accumulation of effluents on the salt flat increases in volume during the summer season until it flows into the Catal lagoon, which is also contaminated by the company's effluents.
The communities have been denouncing for some time the alteration of the salt flat's fragile ecological dynamics. The reduction of water is detrimental to the lives of Indigenous peoples who depend on this resource for livestock, irrigating crops and meeting their own consumption needs. The U.S. company consumes an enormous 800 cm3 of brine per hour and 380 cm3 of freshwater from the Trapiche River for its processes, significantly damaging the available levels of groundwater and surface water. As mentioned earlier, irreversible damage has already been done to the salt flat, with the loss of 11 km of the Vega of the Trapiche River. As a complementary fact, it should be noted that the Livent company does not pay for the water it consumes.
Socializing the impacts of lithium
Regarding the actions carried out by the people of Antofagasta and the Atacameños del Altiplano community against the company, it is important to note the various social, administrative and judicial presentations that have been carried out in the last few years. Since 2018, several assemblies and community meetings have been held to disseminate the information collected about: the mining projects installed in the Salar, the damage that has already been caused, the rights of Indigenous peoples in the face of the illegal advance of mining companies, among other issues.
In August 2019  and February 2020 , two selective and informative roadblocks were organized in order to disseminate the current situation they are going through and demand an institutional response to the claims made. Likewise, in February 2020, an administrative presentation was made to the Ministry of Mining requesting the suspension of the works corresponding to the construction of the Los Patos River aqueduct (Fénix Project expansion), given that it was authorized without prior, free and informed consultation.
However, to date, the government agency has never answered the community's petition and has stated on three occasions that it had been lost, which meant that the presentation had to be withdrawn on several occasions. In the absence of a response from the government of Catamarca, in June 2021, a class-action lawsuit was filed in defence of the rights of the Atacameño community and the environment, which is currently being processed before the Federal Court of the province of Catamarca. In line with the administrative and judicial actions, the Atacameño community of the Altiplano (a member of the Union of the Peoples of the Diaguita Nation of Catamarca) continues in a state of alert and resistance, carrying out direct actions in defence of water and their Indigenous territory.
"The climate is changing, and risks and opportunities that are emerging."
In mining spaces, the six mining companies involved in the projects convey the idea that they are ideally positioned to capitalize on the demand for lithium. As an example, the Canadian company Alpha Lithium states on its website, "The World is Going to Need More Lithium Mines... the reality is that the Argentine region of the "Lithium Triangle" hosts the most experienced personnel and infrastructure ever assembled to service the advanced needs of major producers surrounding our area of interest...We aim to rapidly complete exploration, valuation and advancement to development, in order help satisfy the growing global demands of the ongoing battery revolution" .
For its part, the Australian company Orocobre states that "The adoption of EV technology by global auto manufacturers and commercial grade Energy Storage Systems (ESS) will drive growth in lithium demand over the next decade" .
In addition, this firm seeks to capitalize on the transition to electromobility to attract investors interested in investing in "green" projects by acknowledging "our climate is changing, and risks and opportunities are emerging..." ."
Notably, on September 30, 2021, five of the world's largest lithium mining companies, including Orocobre Ltd, formed the International Lithium Association (ILiA). According to OroCobre, the Association will promote the "sustainable," "reliable," and "responsible supply of lithium" necessary for the "transition to low-carbon economies" .
Lithium "is one of the stars of the extractive economic policy promoted by the national government": national government.
At the governmental level, lithium "is one of the stars of the extractive economic policy promoted by the national government, which under the banner of "sustainability" and the transition to "green energies" seeks to attract investments for the production of lithium carbonate, lithium chloride and lithium hydroxide, raw material for the production of batteries for the promised electric car revolution" . In fact, in one of its official reports, the Secretary of Mining of the Ministry of Productive Development highlights the country as part of the lithium triangle, a driver of the green economy and supplier of the necessary materials for the EV boom .
On the other hand, during the world's largest mining convention, held by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) every year in Toronto, Canada, representatives of the national government and governors of several Argentine provinces, including Catamarca, highlighted Argentina's geological mining potential and the opportunities for international mining companies in the country. They also described mining in the country as an inclusive, sustainable and green activity that improves the lives of the population. PDAC is an "annual conference where mining companies from around the world converge to make deals and ensure they can continue operating in ways that prioritize profit no matter the other costs," ignoring the environmental, social, and human rights impacts of their operations .
Using the same corporate mining discourses, the Argentine delegation to PDAC highlighted lithium as a vital metal to confront the "new challenges of the green industrial revolution." Raúl Jalil, Governor of Catamarca, mentioned that: "Catamarca is mining by nature, by geological potential, history and tradition. Mining development has a constitutional hierarchy and is considered a strategic activity for the economic and productive growth of the province. We offer a wide portfolio of mining projects, a safe road and communication infrastructure that allows us to go out to the Pacific to trade with Asian markets". He also pointed out that: "In lithium, we also have a vast experience with consolidated projects and others inauspicious stages of development."
Mining companies and the Argentinean government, both national and provincial, promote lithium and the projects in the Salar del Hombre Muerto as projects that will contribute to the manufacture of EVs, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and generate future economic profits for their investors. However, these lithium projects threaten everything they claim to protect: water sources (rivers and groundwater), the fragile ecological dynamics of the salt flat, and the ways of life of the indigenous Kolla Atacameña population that have for centuries inhabited this territory.
|Name of conflict:||Lithium mining in Salar del Hombre Muerto, Argentina|
|State or province:||Catamarca|
|Location of conflict:||Antofagasta de la Sierra|
|Accuracy of location||HIGH (Local level)|
|Type of conflict. 1st level:||Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction|
|Type of conflict. 2nd level:||Oil and gas exploration and extraction|
Water access rights and entitlements
Waste privatisation conflicts / waste-picker access to waste
Mining exploration and/or ore extraction
The Livent company's Phoenix Project is a lithium extractive company that produces lithium carbonate and lithium chloride. Livent designed its own production circuit, based on two extractive-industrial complexes, one located in the deposit itself - made up of the selective absorption plant to remove lithium from the natural brine of the Salar del Hombre Muerto, the auxiliary services plant (supply of electricity, steam and compressed air) and the lithium carbonate production plant-, and another located in the province of Salta -consisting of the lithium chloride processing plant (General Güemes department) and the cargo railway station ( Pocitos salt flat). Subsequently, the company made additional investments, aimed at diversifying its commercial base from the production of compounds of increasing demand such as lithium hydroxide and fluoride and fertilizers such as potassium chloride (49 million), and extending 145 km the layout of the Puna Gas Pipeline to avoid the transportation of natural gas in trucks between the field and its industrial plants (110 million dollars).
After undergoing elementary processing for its conversion into lithium carbonate, part of the ore extracted from Salar del Hombre Muerto is exported, while the rest is sent to the General Güemes plant in Salta to obtain lithium chloride. In both cases, the production is shipped in Pocitos (Salta).
It has the capacity to annually produce about 12,000 tons of lithium carbonate and about 6,000 tons of lithium chloride. All production is destined for export. At that extraction rate, its useful life was estimated at 70 years. In 2017, Livent produced 15,153 tons of lithium carbonate and in 2019 the Ministry of Mining approved the expansion of the Fénix project for the company to triple its production and reach 50,000 tons per year. In turn, in 2019 and 2020, the governor of the province issued two decrees authorizing drilling to extract 120 liters of (fresh) water per hour.
In terms of employment, the project generated 600 jobs during construction and 158 direct jobs during its operation. Sources highlight the precarious labor conditions and the lack of spillover of benefits in local communities (especially Antofagasta de la Sierra).
The activity demands large volumes of water resources. This extractive method consists of drilling the surface of the salt flat until it reaches the brine, pumping the resulting liquid and sending it through pipes to large pools dug in the salt flats, where solar energy is used to accelerate the evaporation of water in the open. and obtain the subsequent concentration of the salt sediment (evaporite method).
Requiring between 12 and 24 months, this process takes the concentration level of lithium in brine from 0.22% to 6%; subsequently, the precipitation and addition of chemical reagents separates lithium from the rest of the minerals and compounds diluted in the brine (calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, sulfates, borates, etc.) through a leaching process that increases the concentration 99.1% to obtain commercial lithium carbonate. The latter also implies a significant water consumption, equivalent to 40% of the evaporated water (Manrique, 2014)
There is also a certain academic consensus in the estimation that the extraction of a ton of lithium requires the evaporation of around 2 million liters of water. Although these figures vary depending on the characteristics of each salt flat and its different degrees of mineral concentration (ppm), there is strong empirical evidence that this method of exploitation is nothing more than 'water mining' (Gallardo, 2011).
Livent's freshwater consumption would hover around 380 cubic meters per hour. The company refused for years to pay the water canon. If these figures are considered valid -remembering that the exploitation is carried out uninterruptedly 24 hours a day-, the extraction of lithium in Salar del Hombre Muerto would require the consumption of 84.44 liters of water per second, that is, 7,296. 000 liters per day and 2,663,040 cubic meters per year. FMC Lithium has several sources of supply for the common good, and for this reason they dried up the Trapiche plain and now they want to get the ducks out of the river.
For its expansion, the Livent company plans to extract 650,000 liters per hour from the banks of the Los Patos River, which is equivalent to about 15,600,000 liters of water per day. If we make a comparison, estimating that each one of the 2000 inhabitants of Antofagasta de la Sierra consumes 300 liters of water per day, it is concluded that the company consumes in 14 days what all the inhabitants of the department consume in 365 days of the year.
The growing worldwide interest in lithium generates the arrival of new projects at the Salar del Hombre Muerto. Currently, the “Sal de Vida” project, owned by the Australian company Galaxy Resources (currently Allkem, after merging with Orocobre) and “Sal de Oro”, a Korean POSCO company, are at an advanced stage.
|Level of Investment for the conflictive project||150,000,000|
|Type of population||Rural|
|Start of the conflict:||1997|
|Company names or state enterprises:||Galaxy Resources (GXY) from Australia - Desarrolladora del proyecto "Sal de Vida"|
Livent from United States of America - Dedicada a los negocios de litio de FMC desde 2018.
Allkem from Australia
Mineria Santa Rita S.R.L from Argentina
Galan Lithium from Australia
Lithium South from Canada
Kestrel Gold INC from Canada
Alpha Lithium from Canada
|Relevant government actors:||Government of Catamarca,|
Ministry of Mining of Catamarca,
Undersecretary of Water Resources of the province of Catamarca,
Secretariat of the Environment of Catamarca,
Government of Salta,
Mining Chamber of Catamarca,
Ministry of Environment of the Nation.
|International and Finance Institutions||Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo (BID) (BID ) from United States of America |
Corporación Financiera Internacional del Banco Mundial
Fondo Monetario Internacional (FMI)
|Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:||PUCARA (Catamarca Peoples in Resistance and Self-Determination),|
UNION OF THE PEOPLES OF THE DIAGUITA CATAMARCA NATION,
OPSAL (Plurinational Observatory of High Andean Salt Flats),
FARN (Environment and Natural Resources Foundation),
Not to the Mine.
|Intensity||HIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)|
|Reaction stage||Mobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt|
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Legal Assistance Network against Megamining (REDAJ).
CENTER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE ENVIRONMENT (CEDHA).
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
|Forms of mobilization:||Creation of alternative reports/knowledge|
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
|Environmental Impacts||Visible: Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Air pollution, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover|
Potential: Food insecurity (crop damage), Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Other Environmental impacts, Desertification/Drought, Global warming, Noise pollution, Mine tailing spills
|Other Environmental impacts||Consumption of fossil waters.|
|Health Impacts||Visible: Accidents|
Potential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Malnutrition, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases, Deaths
|Socio-economical Impacts||Visible: Displacement, Land dispossession, Other socio-economic impacts, Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Loss of livelihood, Increase in violence and crime, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights|
Potential: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment
|Other socio-economic impacts||Workers' strikes and frequent union conflicts due to the meager remuneration paid by the foreign firm to its personnel.|
No payment of provincial fees (water).
Tourist impact due to the presence of a mine in the salt flat.
|Project Status||In operation|
|Conflict outcome / response:||Corruption|
Criminalization of activists
Court decision (undecided)
Strengthening of participation
Violent targeting of activists
Application of existing regulations
|Proposal and development of alternatives:||The Atacameños community of the Altiplano has ancestral economic alternatives based on animal husbandry and grazing, fishing, agriculture and crafts. In recent times, a development of community tourism has begun to be projected in the area that has great natural attractions and historical heritage of the history of humanity.|
|Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:||No|
|Briefly explain:||"Fénix Project" is a lithium mining project in salt flats that is in operation (since 1997) and expansion (since 2018). In the same salt flat (Salar del Hombre Muerto) other lithium exploitation projects are planned, where mining companies partner with technology and automotive companies. There are more than 8 companies that intend to settle in this area, increasing the pressures and impacts on this delicate ecosystem and the communities that inhabit it.|
|Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)|
|References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries|
|Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network|
|Contributor:||Actualización en 2021 por: Verónica Gostissa ( [email protected] - Asamblea ANTOFAGASTA RESISTE, PUCARA (Pueblos Catamarqueños en Resistencia y Autodeterminación) y OPSAL (Observatorio Plurinacional de Salares Altoandinos) , Evelyn Vallejos ([email protected] - ANTOFAGASTA RESISTE y OPSAL (Observatorio Plurinacional de Salares Altoandinos), Patricia Marconi [email protected] - Fundación YUCHAN y OPSAL (Observatorio Plurinacional de Salares Altoandinos). Primera versión del caso desarrollada en 2019 por: Patricio Chávez / Lucrecia Wagner|
Campamento de FMC en Salar del Hombre Muerto
Source: No a la Mina
Cercanías del Salar del Hombre Muerto
Salar del hombre muerto
Mapa de concesiones Salar del Hombre Muerto
Fundación Yuchan, 2021