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Chile opens up salt flats for investment, keeps state control over Atacama and Maricunga deposits

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By Colin Hay - 
Chile tightening up lithium controls

Chile’s plans to tighten up its authority over its lithium resources are underway with news it has identified the large Atacama and Maricunga salt flats as areas in which it wants to have a majority ownership in any joint ventures.

One of the world’s leading lithium resource owners and producers, Chile has been moving in recent years to have a stronger role in developing its vast natural resources.

According to Statista, reserves of lithium in Chile in 2023 amounted to an estimated 9.3 million metric tons, the largest worldwide.

Chile is the second-largest international lithium producer behind Australia and in 2023 its lithium production was estimated at 44,000 metric tons, up by 15% from the previous year.

New national strategy

In April 2023, Chile’s president introduced a new “National Strategy for Lithium” that included the establishment of a national lithium company and called for more state participation throughout the entire lithium production cycle.

It also highlighted a desire to promote public-private partnerships, with the state retaining a majority stake in projects deemed strategic for the country.

This week the government enacted part of that strategy when it identified the Atacama and Maricunga salt flats as areas where it will have majority control in public-private partnerships for lithium extraction.

It was also revealed that the government is interested in participating in other salt flats without holding a majority stake.

New projects on the horizon

Earlier this month, Chile revealed it wanted to have three or four new lithium projects operational by 2026.

The government is currently looking to open up vast salt flat areas under a plan to lift the nation’s lithium output by 70% by the end of the decade.

It is preparing to open a tender process next month that will see 26 salt flats become available for investment by private firms.

Chile’s Minister of Mining Aurora Williams said the government is confident there will be strong global interest in the exploration tenders despite the dramatic recent falls in lithium prices.

Majority stake in SQM partnership

Earlier this year, state-owned mining company Codelco and Chilean chemical company SQM entered into a public-private partnership to exploit lithium reserves in the Atacama salt flat until 2060.

The agreement will enable the extraction of 300,000t of lithium between 2025 and 2030, increasing current production levels by a third.

Codelco chair Máximo Pacheco said the agreement provides Chile with the opportunity to further establish itself as a global leader in lithium mining.

The partnership between Codelco and SQM will take effect from 1 January 2025.

The state-owned company will have a majority stake of 50% plus one share in the joint venture, with SQM holding the remainder.