Chile protesters block access to lithium operations: local leader

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Protesters from indigenous communities around Chile’s Atacama salt flats, among the world’s richest reserves of lithium, have blocked access to lithium operations amid nationwide rallies over inequality, a local leader said on Friday.

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The South American nation possesses the world’s largest reserves of the lightweight metal crucial to manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles, laptops and cellphones.

The desert salt basin is home to the world's top two lithium producers: Chile's SQM SQMa.SN and U.S.-based Albemarle ALB.N.

Sergio Cubillos, president of the Atacama Indigenous Council, told Reuters a road blockade had shut down SQM’s operations since Wednesday morning.

“They’re completely shut down,” he said by phone from the windswept intersection of a local road with SQM’s access route.

“The roads are closed.”

An SQM spokeswoman in the capital Santiago said she was trying to obtain official information from the region but had been unable to do so.

Cubillos said Albemarle’s operations had also been impacted by road blockades on Wednesday and Friday.

But an Albemarle spokesman in Santiago told Reuters its Atacama facilities had not been affected, though shift workers had been forced to adjust schedules as a result of hobbled transportation nationwide.

Cubillos said indigenous communities had joined the protests over social inequality in solidarity with fellow Chileans, but also cited concerns over environmental impacts of lithium mining in their territory. The group has moved to block any new lithium mines on the salt flats. [nL2N231045]

“We hope to continue protesting until the state hears us and attends our legitimate demands,” he said.

Chile’s mining ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Protests across Chile that started over a hike in public transport fares boiled into riots, arson and looting that have killed at least 17 people, injured hundreds, brought more than 7,000 arrests and caused more than $1.4 billion of losses to businesses in a week. [nL2N2790UC]

Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne