SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Several hundred people demonstrated in northern Chile on Wednesday to block access to the Atacama Salar, the world’s largest lithium deposit, where national producer SQM and U.S. company Albemarle extract the metal .
The protest, led by local indigenous groups after the signing of an agreement last month between SQM and state-owned copper company Codelco, was affecting SQM’s operations, a source familiar with the matter said.
SQM and Albemarle had no immediate comment.
The protest underscores a serious challenge to plans by Chile, the second-largest lithium producer, to impose more state control over the metal needed for batteries used to power the world’s growing fleet of electric vehicles.
Yermin Basques, leader of the Toconao indigenous community, said local groups were blocking public roads leading to mining operations in the southern salar, preventing workers, supplies and lithium from entering or leaving.
The Basques said indigenous communities were being marginalized in negotiations between SQM and Codelco, which strengthen state control over lithium, in line with the plan announced by President Gabriel Boric in April.
“For us there is no conversation. For us it is just imposed,” Basques said in an interview.
About 500 protesters were blocking six different locations on public roads in the southern Salt Desert, he said, and were demanding that Boric include them in talks between the SQM and the government.
For much of the last year, SQM and Codelco were in talks about the future of lithium mining in the salar, which is home to 90% of Chile’s lithium reserves. The country has the largest proven reserves of lithium in the world.
The December agreement calls for SQM to partner with Codelco for future lithium development and production in the Atacama, beginning in 2025 and lasting through 2060.
The Basques, whose Toconao group is the largest in the Atacama Indigenous Council, said the government had not included the council in the agreement, despite the recent announcement of a dialogue table to discuss the lithium mining in the Atacama.
He said protesters planned to block access to the salt flats until Boric came to talk to them and honor the original agreement.
“We must show sensitivity, the respect that President Boric has always spoken about,” Basques said. “We invite him… to demonstrate what he promised.”
Chile’s Mines Ministry said it was monitoring the protests, but declined to comment further.
(Reporting by Alexander Villegas and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico; additional reporting by Natalia Ramos; editing by Bill Berkrot)
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