Codelco CEO vows to pursue community buy-in over lithium expansion

17th April 2024 By: Reuters

SANTIAGO – Chile's State-run miner Codelco has made progress in negotiating with local communities over lithium mining and will keep working to win their support, CEO Ruben Alvarado said on Tuesday, a day after several groups in the Atacama salt flat broke off talks.

The world's top copper producer has been in dialogue with indigenous groups on the details of a new, state-mandated joint venture in the Atacama salt flat with Chile's SQM, one of two lithium miners in the country.

However, the four largest indigenous groups in the area on Monday said they were pulling out of those talks, citing dissatisfaction with Codelco and SQM, as well as a difference of opinion with other indigenous groups.

Asked about the move, Alvarado told reporters at the CRU World Copper Conference that he recognized the complexity of the negotiations, which he said touched on historical issues.

Many indigenous communities have long decried a lack of investment from the mining industry and said they have felt sidelined by the government.

The government last year promised to host a dialogue with the Atacama Indigenous Council, aiming to reach a consensus over lithium mining in the salt flat.

"We are making progress in that and we are not going to stop working on all kinds of collaboration strategies with the communities," Alvarado said, following a panel discussion alongside other top copper industry executives in which he emphasized Codelco's commitment to social issues.

"This case will not be the exception."

Codelco's relationship with local communities is being put to the test as Chile, the No. 2 lithium producer, aims to impose more state control over the metal needed for batteries used to power the world's growing electric vehicle fleet.

In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Codelco chairman Maximo Pacheco said he had visited the Atacama salt flat in recent weeks to speak directly with local communities, who he said were concerned over the water supply in the area.

The groups that broke off talks also took part in December in a protest over the Codelco-SQM deal, saying they felt they were not taken into account in the negotiations. They staged a blockade of one of the roads in the Atacama salt flat, snarling traffic and forcing SQM to halt operations.