Tesla Motors Inc. and General Motors Corp.’s Chevrolet are preparing to bring out mass-market electric cars next year. If you plan to buy one and help save the planet, people who live near the Atacama salt-flat ask that you spare a thought for the flamingos.
The vehicles will be powered by rechargeable batteries containing lithium, a silver-white metal found in brine deposits under the world’s driest desert in northern Chile. The 1,200-square-foot Salar de Atacama is also known for wild flamingos, who feed and breed in its lagoons. Some locals say that miners sucking water out of the earth to get to the lithium are starving the long-legged birds in the process.
“They are pumping up an absurd amount of water,” says Rolando Humire Coca, a biochemist who heads the Naturalist Society of San Pedro de Atacama and is a member of Chile’s National Institute for Human Rights. “If they keep using the same methods to extract water, the consequences will be disastrous. All forms of life will be destroyed.”
Satellite images indicate that some lagoons and meadows in the salt-flat are shrinking or drying up, while the Chilean Forestry Commission has recorded a drop in the flamingo population. A parliamentary commission set up this year to look into the depletion of water resources across the country has yet to draw any tie to the lithium miners, leaving it to the local community to try and drum up interest in the fate of the flamingos.
The activists have asked the congressional commission for more research into the impact on water resources as they see their ancient way of life disappearing, while the companies say their own monitoring systems show little to no impact.
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