Unlimited Emptiness: Lithium Mining in the Atacama Desert

Unlimited Emptiness: Lithium Mining in the Atacama Desert

dusty roadway bisects two giant pools filled with sky-blue
brine; streams of a viscous custard-yellow fluid cross a
meringue-white landscape of dessicated minerals; mountains recede
into the haze. The horizon is never-ending; the emptiness all

Such is the picture in Catherine Hyland’s series of images from
the Sociedad Química y Minera (SQM) mine in the Atacama desert in
northern Chile. The Atacama is famous for being the world’s driest
place. Four thousand metres above sea level in the rain shadow of
the Andes Mountains, almost no rain falls here and the people who
do live here have historically scraped a living breeding llamas and
goats or knitting hats. So it’s remote and isolated. It’s also the
world’s largest source of lithium, home to minerals that provide
the power that fuels our modern daily life. Break down a smartphone
battery and you’ll find three grams of lithium in there. A laptop
has around 70g. Move up to an electric car and you’ll find 20kg.
Lithium is the element of the moment and the Atacama is where most
of it comes from.

One side of the story that Hyland tells with her images is the
process of making this lithium. In the Salar de Atacama salt flat,
lithium exists as a mineral salt suspended in underground
reservoirs of brine. To get sufficient concentration of lithium,
the brine is pumped into evaporation ponds and then goes through
repeated cycles of solar evaporation. That’s where the colours come
from, the blues, the greens, the yellows, the deepening shades
signifying the higher concentrations being reached for the final
collection of lithium salts that are then processed further into
the metal that will go into your smartphone battery.

That process is evident in landscapes that show the flatness of
the evaporation ponds, the crust-like surface of the earth, the
idea of isolation and fragility even in the gullies and villages
that dot the region. As in her previous work in China, Universal
Experience, Hyland captures a world that seems empty and desolate.
Embedded in these images are the attempts of man to tame the land,
to control it. The dusty roads, the two square miles of neatly
bordered pools put the land into a grid. There is the idea that
this is a desolate place that has been made tidy by mining.

Read any article on lithium mining and you’ll find a mass of
statistics; there are 7.5 million tons of lithium in the Atacama
Desert, that’s enough for almost 400 million electric cars, or 200
billion iphones (the SQM mine, supplies lithium directly to Apple).
One ton of lithium requires 500,000 gallons of water for its
production, all of it pumped from below ground in one of the
world’s most fragile environments. Those numbers add to that idea
of a delineated grid, to that sense of order coming to chaos.

This idea of taming the landscape, of economically productive
order coming out of this unpopulated wilderness is one that suits a
particular narrative. It’s also an idea that has precedence in
mapping of the landscape. Whether inspecting Timothy O’Sullivan’s
King’s Survey photographs of the American West or 19th-century maps
detailing the division of Africa between the colonial powers of
Europe, you can see the idea of emptiness and absence being used to
justify expansionism, colonialism and control. Make something empty
and people see it as empty – and if it’s empty who cares what you
do to it. It’s yours for the taking.

In Universal Experience, there was a taming of vast Asian
landscapes, but this was subverted by clues that pointed to the
dominance of the landscape. The human interventions of fence posts,
viewing points and guardrails were dwarfed by the vastness of the
Chinese landscapes. The same thing happens in Hyland’s pictures
from the Atacama. The mine workers tending the pools are miniscule,
like visitors from space, out of their depth against the broad

Yet there are other hints at human habitation there too: a gully
running past a village showing both that rain does fall here
sometimes and that the area is inhabited, albeit sparsely. There
are dried up salt ponds, deserted cars and strung out telephone
cables. The dilemma for the Atacama people is how to live on a land
that, already the driest place on the planet and in the midst of a
four-year drought, is seeing its water resources further depleted
without much idea of the long-term consequences. It’s a dilemma
compounded by the fact that communities are divided between those
who make a decent wage from the jobs provided by the mining
companies, and those concerned at the slow destruction of a very
fragile environment, and with it the ending of a way of life that
has endured for hundreds of years.

And that’s what Hyland’s landscapes hint at; a land taken over
by this sudden boom in a lithium trade that fuels our digitally
dominated lives, but with an undercurrent that this boom is
transient, that there are longer running narratives, both human and
geological, at play. There is enough lithium in the Atacama to make
batteries for 400 million electric cars, but taking the long view,
that’s not very many. We will consume, the cars will come and go,
the lithium will run out, the mines will close, the land will
remain. The land, whatever its state, will always remain.

@cathyland1 | catherinehyland.co.uk

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