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Deep in the ‘lithium triangle,’ AP journalists find the true cost of mining on native people

Workers harvest salt in the Salinas Grandes salt flats in Jujuy, Argentina, April 25, 2023. The salt flat brings income to towns through tourism and small-scale salt harvesting. AP PHOTO / RODRIGO ABD

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AP journalists Megan Janetsky, Victor R. Caivano and Rodrigo Abd spent weeks in the remote swathes of northern Chile and Argentina to tell a story about the human trade-offs of the green energy transition, resulting in a nuanced, all-formats story about energy transition.

The “lithium triangle” — Chile, Argentina and Bolivia — sits upon the world’s biggest reserves of the metal, used in batteries powering electric cars and in solar and wind energy. But the process to extract the lithium has become increasingly controversial, as the mining guzzles water and is carried out on indigenous lands.

The team set out to understand the complex dynamics in this region that were at play and spent weeks driving through some of the most remote parts of the region to connect with native communities who have lived for centuries upon this treasure trove of minerals. They had to travel long distances to reach the salt flats where lithium was extracted and stay in remote towns with no cell signal and little access to the most basic things. They spent hours in the car, even crossing from Chile to Argentina by night, to make it to mines and organized protests on time.

Many of the indigenous communities have built up a distrust of reporters, so the team had to spend time with them and build a relationship of trust to be able to capture intimate traditions, including indigenous rituals and their daily work in the fields. They spoke to more than a dozen scientists and experts to understand the unique ecosystem within the salt flat, working to understand how the brine connects to fresh water and surrounding life.

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