Chile’s National Lithium Strategy: Balancing Sustainable Resource Management And Economic Growth

Martino Fabris

Chile, a country known for its abundant lithium reserves, has recently announced a new national strategy to maximize the potential of this valuable mineral resource. Led by President Gabriel Boric, the initiative aims to transform Chile into a key player in the battery industry and support the transition to green energy. The goal of expanding the national industry by prospecting new areas of the country that have not yet been targeted by mining projects is undoubtedly an ambitious plan. However, public opinion as well as part of the political class believe that this ambitious project could pave the way for the nationalization of the lithium industry, raising doubts about the participation of the private sector and the economic and social implications of such a move.


Nowadays, lithium has become an essential component in battery production; powering the growing demand for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage. According to forecasts, global lithium demand is expected to significantly increase in the next decade, from the current 500,000 metric tons to over 2 million metric tons by 2030. Therefore, lithium will continue to play an increasingly important role for the Chilean economy and society. Chile is home to the world’s third-largest lithium reserve, with an estimated quantity of around 9.5 million metric tons. This currently positions the country as one of the top global lithium producers with an annual production exceeding 100,000 metric tons.

Chile’s lithium mining sector has experienced substantial development, mainly due to market-friendly policies adopted in the last 40 years. This has attracted significant foreign direct investments over the years, contributing to the modernization of extraction operations and the promotion of technological innovation. However, this has not led to significant diversification of the country’s economy. Economic growth remains heavily reliant on the extractive sector, and exports are mainly concentrated in natural resource-based and primary products. From a social perspective, Chile faces challenges related to the inequitable distribution of economic benefits derived from the mining industry. Recent data shows that around 10% of the Chilean population lives in poverty, and the access to economic benefits related to the expansion of lithium extraction processes may not be evenly distributed in the future, further widening existing socioeconomic inequalities.

From an environmental standpoint, the extraction of lithium from brine operations, if not properly managed, can have severe consequences on the surrounding ecosystem. Lithium extraction practices require intensive use of water resources and can lead to a reduction in local water reserves. In particular, lithium extraction in Chile currently takes place exclusively in the Atacama region, which is an extremely arid territory. The lack of rainfall and scarcity of water resources have resulted in significant environmental impacts from lithium extraction, threatening local communities that depend on these resources for survival. In recent years, this has fueled resistance and social conflicts from surrounding indigenous communities, who have demonstrated by blocking access to extraction sites.


The National Lithium Strategy announced in April by President Gabriel Boric was formally detailed in a 33-page document released in mid-June. The strategy is based on several key components to ensure greater state control over Chile’s lithium industry, primarily through the creation of a state lithium mining company. As a result, the role of the state in new operations will undoubtedly be more prominent. The government will be allowed to directly manage some extraction operations or establish partnerships with private companies when it comes to the allocation of new extraction contracts. This will translate into increased involvement of the public sector in lithium production, starting in the first half of 2024, when the government is expected to grant new mining permits to private companies.

Furthermore, the strategy aims to respect existing contracts with companies already operating in the sector, such as SQM and Albemarle. At the same time, by involving the state-owned copper company Codelco and the state mining company ENAMI, the government intends to renegotiate these contracts, particularly to ensure greater state participation and profit sharing from extraction activities. Another key component of the strategy is the identification of new lithium extraction areas in the country. Chile has identified over 18 salt flats, which are areas with lithium-rich salt deposits, where extraction could be developed. According to the official document, this will contribute to diversifying lithium production in the country and maximizing its vast reserves.

Additionally, the strategy aims to promote the creation of a stronger local value chain in the lithium sector. This means encouraging the production of value-added lithium batteries and components within the country, rather than simply exporting raw mineral. This should foster the development of local skills, employment, and economic growth. An important aspect of the strategy is also to ensure rigorous environmental standards for lithium extraction and processing. Chile will seek to adopt sustainable technologies and practices to reduce the environmental impact of the lithium industry and protect local ecosystems, particularly in areas adjacent to extraction projects.

The lithium strategy promoted by Boric represents a significant commitment to maximizing the benefits derived from this strategic resource for Chile. It aims to create a balance between public and private interests, ensuring sustainable management of lithium resources, profit sharing, and socio-economic development of the country. The effective implementation of this strategy will be crucial to guarantee efficient, responsible lithium production that aligns with the growing global demand.


The new Chilean lithium strategy presents potential challenges that require careful attention. One key challenge is the growing global demand for lithium and the country’s ability to maintain a stable supply. Currently, as outlined, production is primarily controlled by two companies, SQM and Albemarle, operating in a single region, the Salar de Atacama. However, in order to keep up with the demand and ensure a consistent supply to the market, Chile needs to attract new companies willing to operate in the territory. This can only be achieved by reassuring and convincing existing and potential investors through large-scale public investments in the form of tax incentives and other measures aimed at creating a favorable investment environment. At the same time, maximizing lithium reserves is not enough. Expansion must be carried out with a careful consideration for the environment. The strategy itself, for example, explicitly acknowledges territorial and environmental concerns, including a plan to conserve 30% of the Salar de Atacama region. The involvement of new companies in lithium extraction is certainly a factor that puts the promised sustainable approach by the government at risk. In this case as well, it will be important to adopt robust environmental standards that are capable of not discouraging new actors from entering the sector.

The country, therefore, faces a historic opportunity to achieve significant growth in the lithium sector through a public-private partnership. Despite the high quality and low price of lithium, the Chilean lithium sector has lost significant market share in recent years. The new strategy represents a crucial opportunity for the country to regain high competitiveness in the lithium market while demonstrating that this can be done while protecting the environment and local communities.

  • What are the potential benefits and challenges of adopting a similar approach to lithium nationalization in Bolivia and Argentina, considering their own reserves and socio-political contexts?
  • Considering the setbacks in the constitutional council election and the concerns raised by various stakeholders, what adjustments or changes, if any, should Gabriel Boric consider in his approach to the lithium industry to regain public trust and ensure sustainable economic growth in Chile?
  • How does the nationalization of lithium in Chile align with President Gabriel Boric’s environmental consciousness appeals and his government’s plans to promote green energy technologies?

Suggested readings:

Alejandra Bernal, Joerg Husar, and Johan Bracht, “Latin America’s Opportunity in Critical Minerals for the Clean Energy Transition,” International Energy Agency, April 7, 2023,

Maxwell, P., Mora, M. Lithium and Chile: looking back and looking forward. Miner Econ 33, 57–71 (2020).

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Chile’s National Lithiu…

by Martino Fabris time to read: 5 min