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A Fortune Underfoot

Can Bolivia develop its mineral wealth—and undermine Hugo Chávez?

Aug 23, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 46 • By VANESSA NEUMANN
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The stark white landscape of the Salar de Uyuni in the Potosí department of Bolivia is punctuated only by pink flamingos and salt pyramids being slowly shoveled and loaded onto llamas by the Quechuá Indians. It is an unlikely place to be at the forefront of the future of the world’s energy supply. Yet this remote salt flat high in the Andes is at the heart of a global battle which captures nearly every modern ideological struggle: north vs. south, east vs. west, socialism vs. capitalism, native vs. foreigner, rich vs. poor. What lies beneath the surface here could turn Bolivia (one of South America’s poorest countries) into the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century. In 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that Bolivia is sitting on half the world’s lithium, and it is concentrated in the Salar de Uyuni. 

A Fortune Underfoot

A miner works the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat

Newscom

Lithium is the oil of green technology. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are vastly superior to nickel-based batteries. Lighter than nickel, lithium can hold a much greater charge and for longer. It also has a much lower self-discharge rate—5 percent a month compared to 10-30 percent for nickel batteries. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are already powering everything from cameras, cell phones, and laptops to cars, and former Bolivian president Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga told me that the applications are limited only by the imagination. “Right now it’s cars; someday it’ll be motorcycles; someday it could be boats, and one day small planes. I am sure that well before 2045, in Denmark, Norway, or someplace in California, houses or apartments will be able to have lithium batteries outside and that from midnight until two in the morning the electronic system will charge the battery so the house can function all day without drawing on the grid.” That day may be closer than he realizes: Earlier this year, a small plane flew for 24 straight hours powered only by solar panels and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

The Salar de Uyuni is the latest and greatest discovery in the “Lithium Triangle”: 16,000 square miles straddling northern Argentina, Chile, and southern Bolivia, where an estimated 75-90 percent of the world’s lithium deposits are located. So far, Chile’s Salar de Atacama has been the largest source and the best exploited—particularly by the Chinese, who imported 4,300 tons of it in 2008. 

The importance of the Salar de Uyuni is not lost on Bolivia’s socialist firebrand president, Evo Morales, who said before a meeting in February 2009 with French billionaire industrialist and Sarkozy chum Vincent Bolloré: “Lithium is the hope not just for Bolivia but for all inhabitants of the planet.” Though Bolivia has yet to produce or export one pound of the stuff, delegations of Canadians, French, Chinese, South Koreans, Brazilians, Russians, and Japanese have been clogging La Paz’s international airport as they come to court Morales. Reducing dependency on Middle East oil will mean increasing dependency on imported lithium from South America, with all its political complexities.

For there is another group of people who understand the value of Bolivia’s lithium: the Quechuá Indians on whose ancestral lands it is found. Francisco Quisbert, the 64-year-old leader of Fructas, a union-like group of salt gatherers and quinoa farmers on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, has said: “We know that Bolivia can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium. We are poor, but we are not stupid peasants. The lithium may be Bolivia’s, but it is also our property.”

A Hugo Chávez protégé, Morales rode into office on a wave of nationalist sentiment by styling himself a defender of the native Indian against the foreign ravager. He kicked out Americans, has defended the farming of coca as a protected indigenous tradition, and likes to nationalize foreign-owned companies on May Day. A new constitution ratified in January 2009 was aimed at empowering Bolivia’s indigenous peoples and granted them vaguely worded ownership of all natural resources on their lands—a provision that is now throwing a wrench in the works of lithium-mining negotiations. 

Despite the new constitution, Morales—who notably speaks neither of the indigenous languages, Aymara and Quechuá, but only the colonialist language, Spanish—is insistent that “the state must have control of 60 percent of the earnings” from lithium. But in late March, Morales was forced to repeal a decree that established a state resources company to handle the extraction of the Salar de Uyuni’s lithium. The community of Potosí rejected the government decision to create a La Paz-based company, and Concipo (the civic committee of Potosí) threatened a region-wide strike if the department did not receive a more direct role in the business. Concipo wants a 50-50 joint venture between the department and the national government to develop the deposits—not exactly the split that Morales or his foreign suitors had in mind. 

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