Author: Alberto Valz Gris, PhD candidate in Urban and Regional Development, Politecnico di Torino.
Everything might as well start with a hole in the salt crust. As soon as you start digging, the incredibly dry landscape reveals an underground of opposite nature, populated by a large volume of mineral-rich waters. In this case it is lithium brine that we are searching for. Today a shovel, a pump, a two-hundred litre tank and a pickup truck are sufficient for the experimental purposes of the engineers I have traveled with. Naturally the industrial exploitation of lithium requires a scaled-up infrastructure and different kinds of technical equipment, as well as dependencies from national-scale high power lines and gas pipelines, continent-scale flows of labour and supplies and global-scale sale markets—to name a few. In an industrial setting brine is pumped from several wells at the same time at varying depths and then left to evaporate in extensive ponds for an average of 18 months. All of these operations need to occur in proximity of the deposit in order to remain profitable.
Two well-known production sites populate the Argentinian side of lithium exploitation, with the exact number and location of exploration projects still very hard to discern and keep track of. Informal chats in Jujuy as well as a document published last year by the United States Geological Survey (USGS 2017) underline more than thirty currently happening. This datum points to a substantial geological difference between Chile and Argentina, with the former having its lithium resources highly concentrated in the Salar de Atacama and the latter having them scattered over the vast Puna plateau.
Lithium exploitation forms an integral part of the current economic and urban development scoring both the surface and the underground space of the Argentinian Puna. Large-scale national and provincial plans construct a territorial system hinged upon renewable energy production, mining, hydrocarbons and the industrialisation of the resulting products. South America’s largest solar field, two lithium operations prospecting 38.500 tonnes per year and a free trade zone at the border with Bolivia—along with the necessary construction of new paved roads—materially witness this process.
The hardly visible tracks of vehicles crossing the plateau everywhere outside of existing paved roads also give us an account of the increasing and largely unregulated use being made of this territory. A form of urbanisation that we can attempt to sense in the very moment it is happening, revealing its extremely fine-grained yet vastly extended, processual nature (Lefebvre  2003). Connecting detailed socio-spatial facts like lithium pumping wells, vehicle tracks, declining llama populations and infrastructure design plans we are able to retrace the mechanics of urbanising a previously ‘deserted’ landscape in the moment they are happening.
Lefebvre, H.  (2003). The Urban Revolution. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
USGS. (2017). Lithium Production Facilities and Exploration Sites in Argentina. http://www.miningpress.com/media/img/00_litio-argenitna_35578.jpg, last accessed November 19, 2018.