The Salar de Llamara in the middle of the Atacama desert in northern Chile is one of the few places in the world where stromatolite formations — living fossils that are the oldest life forms on the planet — can be found. Studies describe them as representative of the early Earth.
Llamara is also home to Pampa Hermosa, Chilean company SQM’s flagship iodine extraction project.
When Cristina Dorador, a biologist at the Universidad de Antofagasta, arrived at the Llamara, she and her colleagues wept as they saw SQM's pipes and, next to them, what appeared to be communities of microbes floating lifelessly.
Salt flats, Dorador explains, are fragile ecosystems. They’re often seen as pools of water for big mining and even if the water extracted is "returned", an imbalance occurs that results in the death of microbial communities.
Dorador is dedicated to understanding the high microbial diversity in Chilean salt flats. In simple terms, she says her work is also about communicating the importance of the invisible.
elected constituent assembly members will draft Chile's new constitution
Now her scientific work intersects with her political ambitions. Dorador wants to be elected on May 15 and 16 as one of the 155 constituent assembly members that will draft Chile's new constitution, a process that began after the massive social mobilisations of October 2019, and was delayed by the pandemic.
One of a group of independent candidates, Dorador says her goal is to bring "the real north of Chile" to the constitution. She is supported by the Civil Society for Climate Action, a group of over 150 Chilean and international non-government organisations. A recent poll put Dorador as favourite in the Antofagasta district, with 15% saying they would vote for her if elections were held that week.
Dorador spoke to Diálogo Chino about the critical importance of microbial diversity in extreme environments, lithium’s place in the constitution and the global energy transition, and why science and politics need each other.
Diálogo Chino (DC): What drives a microbial ecologist to run for elected office?
Cristina Dorador (CD): I have always been very interested in everything that happens to our people. In my house there were always discussions about literature and politics. I grew up in a very rich environment. When I was in Germany, studying for my doctorate, the Penguin revolution [2006 student mobilisations in Chile] happened. I remember sitting at the computer watching the news in Chile and asking myself, “What am I doing here studying bacteria? Who cares?”
One of the most important findings of my doctoral thesis was the great microbial diversity of the salt flats. And at that time it coincided with technological advances that also showed high microbial diversity in extreme environments like Antarctica and Yellowstone. I saw how those places had much more press, more interest, there was more funding, and in Chile nothing was happening. We have a treasure, and you can do so many things, like getting antibiotics. So I said; “I'll do the research from there and try to contribute.”
DC: What did you find?
CD: We saw on the ground how the systems were more affected every time we sampled, either because a new pipeline was installed, or because of a new mining exploration. There should be places that you don't touch because of the unique knowledge that you can get from there. But at some point I realised that research isn’t enough. It's not enough to publish a lot of papers saying: “Look what's here, it's key for science.” The politician, the decision-maker may not be interested.
DC: Is science not being listened to?
CD: It happened to us when a shed with copper concentrate was installed in the centre of Antofagasta. People started to suffer a lot from the pollution caused by a black dust in the streets. The manager of the company said: “There is no scientific evidence to prove that this dust is ours.” So, Joseline Tapia, a geochemist colleague, and I said: “Let's get a group of researchers together and generate the evidence, that's why we are scientists.” We did it. We produced a paper that was published in an international journal. Nothing happened. We translated it into Spanish, we explained it, we gave talks, we went to talk to the mayor at the time, and nothing. So, no, science is not enough.
DC: Is it possible to exploit lithium without altering the Atacama salt flats?
CD: Calculations [that put the share of the world’s lithium reserves found in the Chile-Bolivia-Argentina 'lithium triangle' at 85%] are based on the idea that all the salt flats can be exploited. How is it possible that they want to exploit all the salt flats? They are unique places of biodiversity that have to be preserved and not exploited.
I hope we don't become a territory that destroys itself to satisfy the demands of the northern hemisphere
So no, at least not now. Lithium in Chile is contained in brines and the mining code recognises it as a mineral, not as water. There are studies that show that the salt flats will be completely exploited in just 20 years. It is very sad because, again, short-term decisions weigh more heavily. The salt flats have historically been seen as deposits. But the water there is finite and has not been sufficiently valued.
DC: So what can be done? Considering the importance of lithium for the energy transition?
CD: It’s not easy. Of course, we have to transition to different energies. Clearly fossil energy cannot continue. Where I live there are many thermoelectric plants operating side-by-side with solar and wind ones. We have to be very honest, talk about things without euphemisms, because everything is given a slogan to lower the tension.
“But we need this project because it is going to generate so many jobs,” people say. OK, fine, but what happens next? That's the question we don't answer. Now we see the aftermath of many things, the mining waste here in the north is the aftermath of a copper bonanza 20 years ago. And what is left? We still have tremendous inequality despite having the highest GDP in the country.
I believe that at some point a method of lithium extraction will be developed that is not as invasive as evaporation wells, but it is still going to have an effect. I hope we don't become a territory that destroys itself to satisfy the demands of the northern hemisphere. It is not because the northern hemisphere has electric cars that we are going to reduce emissions. So we need to have other kinds of actions, so that the polluting industries stop, that the US and China stop their big emissions. Those are the challenges. And it is almost blackmail to put Chile as key to the energy transition. It is not like that.
DC: What can the Chilean constitution do about this?
CD: We have to establish an ecological constitution that acknowledges that human beings are part of nature. Doing so will affect how we relate to extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the Earth to sell on world markets]. We should encourage new types of economy, smaller scale, and think about the future. Everything is finite, the Earth is finite, minerals are finite, so there is a limit to all this.
There’s little awareness of what happens locally. Decisions are made centrally. For example, countries decide to allow industries to concentrate in one area, which people then call “sacrifice zones”. Someone in an office in Santiago decides where we are going to build the port, the sulphuric acid plant, the thermoelectric plant, without asking the people. Without participation, without democracy. That is why we propose regional autonomies, that the people of the territories should be the ones to decide the forms of development.