RS1: The Lithium Triangle
Mingxin Li is an MA Environmental Architecture graduate from the Royal College of Art, London. He completed his undergraduate degree of BA Environmental Design at Jiangnan University School of Design, China. When he was undergraduate, he went to Switzerland to participate in the 2017 GIDE (Group for International Design Education) workshop and won the third-class Yuanxiang Scholarship (Academic Category) of Jiangnan University. He also won the China College Student Entrepreneurial Project in 2018.
During his time at the RCA, he was the Student Representative of the MA Environmental Architecture Programme, and he focused on scales and non-human living beings in the context of environmental changes. In the Lithium Triangle Research Studio, he and his colleagues explored the legal conflicts and environmental changes between lithium extraction and indigenous communities in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile.
He contributed the animation of stromatolite with Anabel Garcia-Kurland for the exhibition of “The Ends of the World” which was curated by Godofredo Pereira in Het Nieuwe Instituut. He is currently looking for opportunities for further research in London.
In the year 2020, COVID-19 is spreading across different classes, genders and regions. We are not only facing epidemics or climate change, but also environmental changes of different scales. This involves different modes of development.
As we all know, water is the most crucial thing for the living and non-living beings in the desert. But extractivism is using the brine (water contains high concentrations of salts and minerals) for lithium processing in northern Chile. My Independent Research Project started with analysis of the Salar de Llamara (a salt flat and indigenous heritage area) in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, such as the extraction resources of SQM (Sociedad Quimica y Minera, world's biggest lithium producer), the ecosystem and the caring device of microorganisms. More importantly, this leads to the concept of microorganisms’ symbiosis as a new perspective on human alternative modes of development.
I try to speculate on a hint of symbiotic mode of development through different representations. For example, maps, drawings, animations and science fiction. I hope to achieve a possible consciousness transformation from extractivism to symbiosis through the assemblage of representations.
Puquio de Quilligua in Salar de Llamara — MA Environmental Architecture Field Trip 19-20 Royal College of Art, London
Stromatolites in Puquio de Quilligua — MA Environmental Architecture Field Trip 19-20 Royal College of Art, London
Dome Detail — Rasuk, Maria & Kurth, Daniel & Flores, Maria & Contreras, Manuel & Novoa, F. Fernando & Poiré, Daniel & Farías, Maria. (2014). Microbial Characterization of Microbial Ecosystems Associated to Evaporites Domes of Gypsum in Salar de Llamara in Atacama Desert. Microbial ecology. 68. 10.1007/s00248-014-0431-4.
Sample of the Stromatolites — Manuel Contreras; Maria Eugenia Farias. Guia para la Conservación y Seguimiento de Ecosistemas Microbianos Extremófilos. SEREMI de Medio Ambiente de Antofagasta, 2017
Cyanobacteria Culture on Gypsum Samples — Huang, Wei & Ertekin, Emine & Wang, Taifeng & Cruz, Luz & Dailey, Micah & Diruggiero, Jocelyne & Kisailus, David. (2020). Mechanism of water extraction from gypsum rock by desert colonizing microorganisms. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117. 202001613. 10.1073/pnas.2001613117
Groupings of Unicellular Cyanobacteria — Demergasso, Cecilia & Chong, Guillermo & Galleguillos, Pedro & Escudero, Lorena & Martinez-Alonso, Maira & Esteve, Isabel. (2004). Microbial mats from the Llamará salt flat, Northern Chile. FEMS Microbiology Ecology. 48. 57-69.
Sulphur Bacteria — Demergasso, Cecilia & Chong, Guillermo & Galleguillos, Pedro & Escudero, Lorena & Martinez-Alonso, Maira & Esteve, Isabel. (2004). Microbial mats from the Llamará salt flat, Northern Chile. FEMS Microbiology Ecology. 48. 57-69.
Exopolysaccharides (EPS) Covering Empty Diatom Frustules — Rasuk, Maria & Kurth, Daniel & Flores, Maria & Contreras, Manuel & Novoa, F. Fernando & Poiré, Daniel & Farías, Maria. (2014). Microbial Characterization of Microbial Ecosystems Associated to Evaporites Domes of Gypsum in Salar de Llamara in Atacama Desert. Microbial ecology. 68. 10.1007/s00248-014-0431-4.
Medium:Image, Photography, Video
SQM (Sociedad Quimica y Minera) Nueva Victoria — MA Environmental Architecture Field Trip 19-20 Royal College of Art, London
Water Extraction Wells of SQM (Sociedad Quimica y Minera) in Salar de Llamara — Google Earth/ Data from Superintendencia del Medio Ambiente – Gobierno de Chile
Water Level Measurement of SQM (Sociedad Quimica y Minera) in Puquio de Quilligua — MA Environmental Architecture Field Trip 19-20 Royal College of Art, London
Water Extraction Device of SQM (Sociedad Quimica y Minera) — Cristian Núñez, https://www.biobiochile.cl/noticias/nacional/chile/2017/07/06/sma-mantiene-proceso-contra-sqm-por-danos-en-salar-de-llamara-en-la-pampa-del-tamarugal.shtml
Extractivism is carried out within a human-centred framework, which means that humans are the objects of development and humans have priority over other factors in development. For example, the degree of extraction depended entirely on the market and economic profits, rather than the ability of the ecological restoration. Therefore, extractivism is relatively isolated and disconnected from the earth’s multi-layer system. This has brought the rapid development of the human world but also caused the rapid destruction of the natural environment.
The destruction of the natural environment also benefits from human’s understanding of the environment. People usually understand the environment as static, even a source of raw materials. For example, in Salar de Llamara, under extractivism, SQM treated Salar de Llamara as an extraction resource rather than an environment or environmental architecture. Technology, as a way for human beings to adapt to the environment, has become an accelerator of environmental destruction. Even if some technology is used to analyze the state of the environment, but the purpose of the analysis is always to find reasons for further extraction.
Extractivism not only affects non-living beings but also other life forms besides human beings. If human beings always seem to be the consumers of the environment, then other life forms, especially microorganisms, are the maintainers of the environmental systems. In Salar de Llamara, the visible living beings are very limited, the microorganisms are the main life form. If the environment is the consistency between living and non-living beings in the coexistence relationship, then microorganisms and other life forms are contributors to maintaining the environment.
Compared with the destructive development of extractivism, symbiosis is a mode of constantly creating new lives. In Salar de Llamara, cyanobacteria, as primary producers, formed a relatively stable coexistence relationship with other bacteria. Of course, this kind of coexistence relationship includes not only symbiosis but also competition. Competition is the nature of organisms. But competition is not for genocide, but a way to balance the life and the environment capacity. In a symbiotic relationship, different living beings depended on each other for survival. From a human perspective, it can be regarded as a kind of care. In response to environmental changes, the symbiotic relationship provides a high degree of responsiveness for different living beings. There is not only food sharing between symbiosis, but also provides a more suitable microenvironment for survival.
Therefore, the concept of my Independent Research Project is that if we regard symbiosis as a new perspective of an alternative mode of development, how can we speculate a possible transformation from extractivism to symbiosis?
Medium:Photography, Video, Interview
Legal Evidence of SQM Concessions and Water Extraction
The Evidence of SQM Water Reinjection
The Relationship of Puquio de Quilligua and SQM Nueva Victoria
As one of the partners of extractivism, the law has created a so-called legal environment for extractivism. For example, the concessions. Government has given the mining company water rights and mining rights by promulgating laws that are conducive to extraction. The mining rights are displayed as a series of pink rectangles on the map. The geographical entities represented by these ‘rectangles’ conflict with the historical territories of the local indigenous people.
The water extraction wells were represented by 'pink dots' in the Salar de Llamara. Since 1997, SQM Nueva Victoria has been authorized to extract Salar de Llamara water (brackish water to be exact) in the northern of Puquio de Qulligua. This is essential for the leaching in the mineral processing of SQM and is crucial for the non-human living beings in Salar de Llamara. Water extraction directly affects the amount of water in the aquifer, which reduces the amount of water pumped from the aquifer to Puquio de Quilligua, so it leads to a drop in the water level in Puquio de Quilligua.
In addition to water extraction, there was also water reinjection. The water reinjection wells were represented by 'red dots'. In the instructions of Chilean Dirección General de Aguas 4 in 2009, the ecosystem of Salar de Llamara was severely affected by SQM water extraction. Then SQM set up reinjection wells without authorization and re-injected water with different chemical compositions (especially low salt concentration) to restore Puquio's water level.
Since the maps cannot capture the relationship between SQM and the ecosystem of Puquio de Quilligua, I tested drawing. Water extraction directly caused the water level in Puquio to drop significantly. This kept the water away from the interface between the water and the stromatolite before the extraction, which directly affects the survival of microorganisms in the stromatolite.
Water reinjection means that SQM reinjects water of different water quality from the brine into the aquifer of Puquio de Quilligua. As water evaporates from the aquifer into Puquio, this changes the water quality, which directly affects the survival of microorganisms. So the SQM not just caused the legal conflicts of the indigenous territories, but also caused the destruction of the Salar’s ecosystem.
In fact, both legal conflicts and ecosystem destruction are environmental conflicts, and environmental conflicts are conflicts between different modes of development. Such as the indigenous, the symbiosis of microorganisms and the extractivism.
Size:297 x 420 mm
What the animation expresses is the stromatolite in Puquio de Quilligua. Puquio is not just the water hole, Puquio is the home for local non-human living beings. I simulated and imagined the non-human landscapes of stromatolites in Puquio de Quilligua. In fact, the stromatolite was a kind of environmental architecture and it was gradually built by the “technology” of bacteria, especially the photosynthesis of cyanobacteria. And the stromatolite was the composites of myriad micro-structures of microorganisms through the symbiotic mode of development.
I tried to write this science fiction from the perspective of bacteria. The story starts with the environmental destruction caused by SQM's water extraction. I speculated on the high responsiveness of bacteria by constructing stromatolites in the face of environmental changes. When humans cannot withstand catastrophic environmental changes, bacteria help humans evolve by sharing "neural plug-ins''. The "Neural plug-ins'' are a metaphor for technology in human development. Technology is a tool for humans to create better coexistence relationships, but technology has become an accelerator of extractivism. Finally, humans in arid areas have humps on their backs, humans in flooded areas have fish fins, and humans can grow root-like limbs to resist different degrees of environmental changes. What I want to express is a symbiotic relationship between human beings and other non-human living beings and other non-living beings, a symbiotic mode of development of becoming "others'' and participating in the earth's non-living beings systems. Rather than extractivism's ignorance of other non-human living beings and infinite extraction of non-living beings.