MANY OF US who have not lived or spent time in the desert imagine it as raw, rugged, or even lifeless. This conception of the desert in popular culture, as a place where life, exposed as the ancient underbelly of the Earth, ceases to exist, is far from the truth. In the Atacama, the driest non-polar desert on Earth, lagunas and waterways pepper the landscape in the shadow of perfectly symmetrical and sacred stratovolcanoes, defying expectations of what we think a desert should look like. Even in its highest reaches, places where desert terrain stretches out to meet the sky in the Andean Altiplano (high plains of the Atacama), a place where even NASA has sent equipment to test it’s readiness for Mars and the Moon, water is here, central to life.
The saline waters that cradle life in the Atacama emerge from the fact that much of the Andean Altiplano is an enclosed basin, landlocked from the ocean. Life in the Salar de Atacama, human and nonhuman, has tuned itself to the rhythms of these saline waterways. Photo by mariusz kluzniak / Flickr.
The history of life, community, and culture here runs as deep as the mountains and as wide as the 49,000 square miles it spans across the Western part of South America. The people who call the Atacama home — the Lickantai in the Kolla in Argentina, and the Aymara and Quechua in Bolivia — have been here since time immemorial. The history of their people and this land are synonymous. And, like in many deserts environments across the world, water is life. In the Atacama, this is even more the case than usual.
I visited the Andean Altiplano in 2017 as part of a collective working with Indigenous land and water defenders fighting extractive industries. One afternoon, our guide from one of the communities brought us to sacred waterways. I remember crouching next to one of two deep, crystalline blue pools of water near the side of a dirt road. These pools, named the Ojos del Salar (Eyes of the Salar), gaze into the open expanse of desert sky. Looking into them, I saw what I thought were specks of dust darting through the waters.
But what I thought was dust was very much alive. They were Artemia: brine shrimp.
In the Atacama, where evaporation rates are the highest in the world, and precipitation is often less than two millimeters a year, Artemia thrive in waters with salt concentrations fifteen times greater than seawater. The fossil record shows their morphology has largely remained the same for the past 250 million years, the saline waters acting for eons as a shield against would-be predators who cannot survive such conditions.
The saline waters that cradle life here emerge from the fact that much of the Andean Altiplano is an enclosed basin, landlocked from the ocean. As rain or snow trickles down mountain sides, minerals and elements are eroded away from the rocky terrain and carried by the waters. The concentrations of these elements in the water are initially small, but they have no place to escape. Repeated precipitation and high rates of evaporation lead to increased concentrations of salts in the waters. Yet precipitation and evaporation are not enough. The last crucial ingredient to the salty waters of the Atacama is time. Enough time to etch away at the mountains and stones of the landscape and imbue more and more of the elemental richness of the Earth into groundwaters. And the Atacama has had time. It is the oldest desert on Earth, and paleoclimatic data confirms it has been in a state of hyperaridity for more than three million years.
Life in the Salar de Atacama, human and non-human, has tuned itself to the rhythms of these saline waterways. It is a geography unlike any other in the world. Even the microbes of this region are uniquely adapted to lagunas strewn across the desert salt flats. Much like its people, these extremophile microbes, and all life in the region, are Atacameños. There is no other place for them in the universe but the brines of the salares.
Like many places in the world under threat today, what makes the Atacama unique has become its very vulnerability. The saline waters that harbor a way of life endemic only here have ushered in the threat of climate change onto Atacameños. Here, however, the Atacama again defies expectations. Unlike the typical images of climate disaster that circulate in public imagination — storm surges as tall as apartment complexes, ceaseless wildfires that tint the sky shades of red, or megadroughts that last years — the most immediate threat in the Salar de Atacama is not from environmental impacts of climate change. This land is being endangered by our climate solutions.
The people who call the Atacama home have been here since time immemorial. The history of their people and this land are synonymous. Photo by tjabeljan / Flickr.
San Pablo de Lipez, a village in the Bolivian Altiplano. Like many places in the world under threat today, what makes the Atacama unique has become its very vulnerability. Photo by Francoise Gaujour / Flickr.
The saline waters of the Salar de Atacama are rich in one of the most sought after elements in the world today: lithium. Found in our phones and laptops, in electric vehicle batteries and in energy storage devices used for intermittent renewables like wind or solar, lithium is a pillar of the green revolution.
An estimated 75 percent of the world’s lithium supply is found in the Andean Altiplano: a region referred to as the “lithium triangle” by mining companies. Despite being the foundation for a supposed “green” economy, lithium’s mining process mirrors fossil fuel extraction. Lithium rich groundwater, found in the same brines that life depends on in the Atacama, is pumped to the surface and refined to create new ways to store and transport energy — in the form of batteries instead of crude oil. This lithium rich groundwater, in one of the driest deserts on Earth, is laid out in massive ponds and evaporates away. Left behind is a lithium-rich sludge that can be refined, processed, and manufactured into batteries.
The extraction of lithium occurs despite the fact that Indigenous communities from all over the Atacama resist its extraction. Despite the demands the communities of the Atacama have made to policy makers, the blockage of roads by Indigenous communities in some of the most remote highways of the Andean Altiplano, and ongoing fights with mining companies, multinational corporations continue to swoop in and lay claim to lithium rich groundwater with dreams of dessication.
The pillaging of the Atacama is a climate disaster.
In this climate disaster, it is apparent that extractivism justified by the urgent need for an energy revolution is also analogous to the system that fed the furnace of industrialization in the first place: colonialism.
It cannot be understated that colonialism, the centuries-long effort to dominate other peoples and exert political and economic control over their territories, is the very foundation of the modern day climate crisis.
White supremacy justified the territorial takeovers and genocide by colonial settlers who believed non-Europeans to be less than human. Colonialism, in turn, facilitated a system of resource extraction that not only includes practices such as fossil fuel manufacturing, but also clear cutting of forests, industrial agriculture, and water-intensive mining. All these practices, directly linked to colonialism, fed industrialization and a culture of consumption that neatly tracked the rise of greenhouse gas) concentrations in the atmosphere. Resource extraction hinges on the displacement of Indigenous peoples — a reality that is intentionally hidden from most of the world, in an attempt to justify business as usual.
Despite the inextricable history of environmental degradation, colonialism, and climate change, environmentalists have increasingly looked at greenhouse gas emissions as a monolithic enemy. The prominent renewable energy solutions that form the zeitgeist of today’s progressive Left do little to address the multifaceted catastrophe we are facing. Many are deeply intertwined with extractive industries that destroy critical ecosystems, exacerbate the deterioration of Earth’s biocultural diversity, and continue the violent system of displacing Indigenous peoples.
In the lower right, the geometric shapes of large evaporation ponds dominate the Salar de Atacama –Chile’s largest salt flat. At about 3000 sq km, it is the world’s third largest salt flat as well as one of the largest active sources of lithium. From evaporation ponds like the ones pictured here, lithium bicarbonate is isolated from salt brine. Lithium is used in the manufacturing of batteries, and the increasing demand has significantly increased its value in recent years – especially for the production of electric-car batteries. Photo courtesy of the European Space Agency.
The realities of the situation demand a heightened awareness of its complexity. Biodiversity is rapidly declining, and it is almost entirely due to how we extract from the land and sea: for agriculture, mining, timber, and water. Extracting those resources is still contingent, even today, on destroying lands held by Indigenous peoples. Climate change multiples and amplifies the threats on both biodiversity and oppressed peoples, yet those threats persist even in its absence. Each one is intertwined, and each is existential in its own right.
A commonly cited statistic indicates that Indigenous peoples’ lands hold 80 percent of the Earth’s remaining biodiversity. Extraction on such lands has already destroyed much of the Earth’s precolonial flora and fauna, and laid the lattice structure for today’s climate crisis. Despite this, many political leaders and environmentalists refuse to acknowledge the problematic aspects of climate solutions predicated on a simple switch to renewable resources, that perpetuate a system of extraction. The United Nations, in its 2018 report on biodiversity loss, has called upon us to “rethink what it means to live a good life” in the face of the reality that we are in the midst of an extinction event. Most often, however, the response I get to this information is: it’s sad, but what choice do we have? Isn’t climate change an existential threat? Don’t we need electric vehicles and solar panels for our survival?
The fatalistic framing of such a question is designed to absolve political leaders and powerful environmentalists of responsibility. It presupposes that there is a logical order of operations for cutting off the heads of the hydra that threaten the planet and its peoples. Of course, it is absolutely true that climate change is an urgent threat, and not addressing it will have catastrophic consequences. Yet, posing the question this way avoids nuance and the potential to explore other paths. It defers dismantling a colonial and capitalist system that to this day destroys and displaces Indigenous peoples until an alternative date, when time is a more ample luxury.
The question itself is also subtly founded in a false humanism, an “our survival” that refrains from defining itself too closely. Behind it is something sinister: that idea that we have latitude in the destruction of other peoples, the Atacameños being only one place, in order to save “ourselves.” This is a familiar tool of white supremacy and colonialism.
Sociologist Vahakn Dadrian, a key 20th century thinker in the history of genocides, outlined the driving forces behind genocide. Among the five categories of genocide he categorized in his 1975 paper “The Typology of Genocide” was “utilitarian genocide.”
This form of genocide will be familiar to many colonized peoples. It is a form of genocide particularly focused on obtaining material and economic wealths, often justified for its merits towards the benefit for some other, superior population.
While the pathway to a green revolution is dressed in niceties, embedded behind questions like “it’s sad, but don’t we have to do it?” is the same sentiment: that there are some people, somewhere, that must be sacrificed for our inevitable march forward towards progress. To the powerful, our way of life is unchangeable, immutable, and incontrovertible. We can replace one technology with a carbon-friendly one, build an economy that pays people more and call it a just transition — but in practice, the idea that we must, as the United Nations Biodiversity Report stated, “change our conception of a good life” still evades us.
IN THE ATACAMA, as I stood by the deep blue waters of Ojos del Salar, hearing about the struggles to survive from Indigenous water defenders, I was reminded how the tools of utilitarian genocide are similar to some of the ones used to support the green revolution today. Extractive industries displace traditional livelihood masqueraded as “help.” Solidarity and connection between communities or tribes is severed through economic and political carrot sticks, used to gain shallow consent. The destruction, displacement, and exploitation are given calculated go-aheads in the name of progress, national security, or fending off existential threats like climate change.
This is the cold calculus of capitalism, and nowhere is this more evident in how the environmental and climate community shows up for protests against the Keystone, Dakota Access, and Line 3 pipelines, but is absent as the Colorado River Indian Tribes fight to protect sacred sites from being eradicated by a 350 megawatt battery for solar projects. The environmental community was silent when in southern Mexico, Indigenous Mayan communities sued the Mexican government to prevent over 674 hectares of forest from being cut down for solar panels, and child labor was being used for electric vehicle cobalt in the Congo.
As an Earth scientist who understands the far reaching threats of climate change, I can understand why this is. For many years, I too believed that addressing emissions reductions first was the only way for us to survive. But, as I grew into an activist and organizer, I realized how deeply terrified we should be about a cost-benefit analysis that cuts away cultures and bleeds the land dry with ease, as long as an alternative threat looms large enough and we tweak the math enough to add up.
Beyond my life as a scientist I am a brother, son, friend, partner, and someone of Puerto Rican and Indian heritage. We are at a moment in history where Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are being asked for our voices. After generations of demanding space to speak, we are being asked to come into lecture halls and classrooms, and to write for journals and on social media. How rare have those opportunities been in the past centuries? It feels tenuous, fragile, and has, at least for me, made it nerve-wracking to speak truths against the current paradigm of climate solutions. It feels like it could all be taken away just as quickly as it was offered.
We cannot afford to wait any longer to deal with these threats. We also cannot afford to lose the political momentum of today’s climate movement to solutions that further lock us into a death spiral. Perhaps the best thing those of us from oppressed peoples, who suddenly find ourselves with a place to speak, can remember is just how quickly the cold logic of capitalism can turn against our people again. The history of my peoples in Puerto Rico and India remind me how quickly this gaze can return to us. They remind me to ask whether or not we are truly dismantling the systems that brought the climate crisis to us, or if we are simply swapping out parts to make them more palpable to us as we continue to wreak havoc on the planet.
In the Atacama, I was reminded how much uncertainty is embedded in our climate solutions. In the papers I read or articles I studied that promoted electric vehicles for their potential emissions reductions, there was nothing to be found on the death and destruction of these people. Nothing about the loss of flamingoes that lay eggs in the lagunas here, or extremophile microbes that are the ancestors of the Atacameños. Nothing about the loss of culture, language, or history that are irreplaceable. It is easy to kill what is already dead, of course, and desert has long been rendered lifeless in the popular imagination.
I wonder what BIPOC activists will do when we cannot avoid the life-destroying practices of the world so many of us live in. There are already chances to see. The onslaught of mineral resources used for industry favorite climate solutions already comes closer to our homes. The proposed Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in Nevada is facing growing opposition from Shoshone and Paiute tribes with ancestral connections to the land. For the most part, so far, climate activists remain silent. Will it be another desert, another people, another place, rendered lifeless?
Decarbonization does not need to mean displacement or death. It does not have to mean that these communities and these lands, so often invisibilized and silenced, must once again be placed at the sacrificial altar of progress. Decarbonization can and should mean decolonization, a fight for the sovereignty, autonomy, and dignity of all Indigenous peoples. We must have the courage to listen, hear the truths which they have called out for decades, and forge new relationships that break the colonial paradigm.
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