8 Apr 2009

Seeking the holy grail of Bolivian lithium

Extracting lithium in Salar de Uyuni, BoliviaThe holy grail is high up in the Bolivian Andes, 3,700 metres above sea level, hidden beneath a crust of pure white salt.

The Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, contains the world’s largest reserves of lithium, the essential ingredient in the batteries which power electric cars.

President Obama has said he wants a million such vehicles on America’s roads by 2015, to replace the cars we drive now which emit so much climate-changing gas. Suddenly impoverished, downtrodden Bolivia has something that everyone wants.

What struck me when I went to Bolivia to film our story was how history occasionally has a chance to avoid repeating itself – but normally does nonetheless.

In 1545, the Spanish discovered silver at Potosi, which became the centre of Spanish colonial power. Bolivians were used as slaves. Eight million of them are believed to have died from mining accidents and mining-related diseases over the centuries, while Spain grew rich. The Bolivians gained little from silver or any other metal.

Now, Potosi is a crumbling, a ramshackle old town, a symbol of Spain’s long-faded power. Miners still go down the narrow shafts, using crude tools to chip away at the rock and extract the remaining silver and tin, and earning a pittance.

So will it be different with lithium? Evo Morales, the country’s revolutionary, socialist, indigenous President says it will. He’s already nationalised the country’s natural gas.

Now he’s arguing that any foreign company which wants to exploit the country’s lithium – and they’re lining up to do so – will have not only to extract the mineral, but also to manufacture batteries and even cars in country. In other words, he’s trying to turn the historical tables.

“It is very simple: we will not continue exporting raw materials for another 500 years. That is over,” said Luis Alberto Echazu, the Minister for Mining, when I met him in his office in La Paz.

Workers extract Lithium in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Well, maybe. My fear is that the Bolivian leader, who often lends his support to strikes and demonstrations, even though he now runs the country, will take brinkmanship too far.

Battery-makers like Mitsubishi and the South Korean firm LG, want Bolivia’s lithium but the new constitution says that all profits must be reinvested in Bolivia, suggesting that the companies won’t be allowed to make a penny. Yet Bolivia needs foreign expertise to develop lithium production beyond the first stage.

This is Bolivia’s historical opportunity, and I hope they make it work. Because if they don’t, the scientists developing the environmentally sound vehicles of the future will look beyond lithium, and develop an alternative technology.

Bolivia could find that the Holy Grail has moved elsewhere.

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