Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lithium: Bolivia's white gold mine

When you take a photo of the Bolivian landscape on your smart phone, or listen to music on your iPod on the bus, lithium-based batteries are allowing these gadgets to function. The lightest solid element and the metal with the highest energy density, lithium is crucial not only for our current technology – powering lightweight batteries for our laptops, cell phones and other gadgets – but could also hold the key to a greener, more efficient future by powering electric cars. And around 50% of the entire world’s lithium reserves are lying in Bolivia, beneath the Salar de Uyuni.

Bolivia’s history is riddled with episodes of the exploitation of its natural resources, from gold and silver in colonial times to oil and tin in more recent years. But there is a key difference where lithium is concerned – the current President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, whose Aymara ancestors lost their land and resources to Chile in the War of the Pacific, has spent his career focused on fighting the influence of transnational corporations in Bolivia and supporting indigenous and poor communities.

Following the violent suppression of protests and strikes against the exploitation of natural gas in 2003 and 2005, Morales nationalised the country’s gas reserves, putting control over that raw material firmly in the hands of Bolivians. Morales has claimed that Bolivia has gained an additional $2 billion in annual revenue as a direct result of the nationalisation of their hydrocarbon industry nearly ten years ago, and this extra money has been put to good use, forming a kind of social security for elderly people and subsidizing lunches for school children. However, much of this additional money has also stayed in the government’s money boxes.
Morales is looking to lead Bolivia down a similar nationalised route with lithium too. Following local community resistance to foreign attempts to extract the lithium in the 1980s and 1990s, Morales has set up pilot projects – owned and run by Bolivians – in the salt flats, as well as the first trial plant in January last year to attempt to extract some of the lithium. But Morales doesn’t just want to extract the lithium from beneath the salt flats and sell it on to foreign countries, as Bolivia has done in the past with other materials; he wants Bolivia to export the finished products, lithium-based batteries and even electric cars. But Morales needs to ensure that any bitterness from past foreign exploitation does not get in the way of actually utilising all that lithium: help from multinational corporations may be necessary for Bolivia to learn and put into practice the complex technology required to extract the lithium, as well as to process it in a cost-effective way and turn it into a functioning vehicle.

The sheer volume of lithium stored beneath the Salar de Uyuni is ensuring that international interest in these resources in Bolivia stays high. It is expected that current lithium supplies in the world will be outstripped by demand in the next few years, with the potential for the demand for lithium to multiply by five times as the electric car market booms. If this happens, the world will need the resources that Bolivia has beneath its salt flats.

Fortunately it seems the world is still not ready to give up on the damaging and limited oil it currently depends on for motor vehicles, despite the increasing warnings on climate change. While the Tesla Roadster, Chevrolet Volt and other plug-in vehicles from leading car brands are already available, they are the minority. This could give Bolivia the time it needs to develop the technology, infrastructure, and self-belief needed to make the best use of this valuable resource lying beneath its salt flats. After all the lithium isn’t going anywhere – Bolivia just needs to be ready when it is needed.

Furthermore Bolivia, and Morales especially, needs to be accountable to its people. The Bolivian constitution states that indigenous peoples have the right to be consulted before the ‘exploitation of non-renewable natural resources in the territory they inhabit’, and the right ‘to participate in the benefits of the exploitation of natural resources in their territory’. Evo Morales has claimed to fight multinational businesses for the benefit of the Bolivian people, and so if Bolivia does find success with its lithium resources then Bolivians will want to feel the economic and social gains. If they don’t, history could repeat itself yet again with civil unrest over the exploitation of natural resources.

Bolivia has a chance here not only to bring in funds crucial to improving the lives of its citizens, but also to become a major player in the future of clean energy. If Morales can keep his word to the people but also put old grudges aside, soon we could be driving environmentally-friendly cars ‘Made in Bolivia’.

Written by Jonathan Jordan.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Jonathan. Very complex political and environmental situation, explained clearly.