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IDEAS

In search of Bolivia’s white gold

In an impoverished country rich with natural resources, ‘powder to the people’ means an economic future powered by lithium.

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni salt flats.Matjaž Krivic

UYUNI, Bolivia —

South America’s second-poorest country, Bolivia, is home to one of the world’s richest reserves of lithium, a key component in batteries that power everything from electric cars to remote controls. On a continent where the exploitation of natural resources has enriched multinational corporations and corrupt governments — but scarcely any of the people who live there — lithium’s potential to spark an economic renaissance in Bolivia has not inspired optimism. Until now.

Since his election in 2020, President Luis Arce, an economist by training, has spearheaded a massive nationalization of lithium’s supply chain. The goal is to meet 40 percent of the world’s lithium demand by 2030, making Bolivia the “world capital of lithium,” in his words.

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Enormous lithium evaporation pools near Bolivia's state-run production plant at Salar de Uyuni.Matjaž Krivic

The Salar de Uyuni salt flats high in the Andes hold an estimated one-quarter of the world’s lithium reserves, some 21 million tons. There, a massive new factory is testing a technology that pulls lithium directly from the flats without first having to evaporate the brine it’s found in. Late last year, the Bolivian state-run Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (Bolivian Lithium Deposits), or YLB, selected eight firms from Argentina, China, Russia, and the United States to participate in a pilot lithium extraction and production venture at the Salar de Uyuni, Coipasa, and Pastos Grandes salt flats.

Whereas a 2018 lithium extraction deal with Germany’s ACI Systems so outraged Bolivians that it led to the ouster of that plan’s architect — Arce’s predecessor and political mentor, Evo Morales, who was Bolivia’s president for 14 years — the Bolivian government is determined this time around that the spoils of its natural treasures remain in the country. The government will be a majority shareholder in every lithium contract, says Luis José Del Castillo Rodríguez, YLB’s director of communications.

A worker checks fresh battery-grade lithium at YLB's pilot production plant at Salar de Uyuni.Matjaž Krivic

With the potential to produce 15,000 tons of lithium carbonate — a white powder that calls to mind another lucrative, if illegal, South American export — per year, the direct-extraction technology could transform the economy around Salar de Uyuni, which has been so ravaged by climate change-driven drought that llamas and alpacas, economic mainstays of the region, have perished by the thousands. Over the past few years, farmers there report, a rainfall shortage was responsible for a 40 percent drop in harvests of quinoa, a high-protein staple of the national diet. Extracting one ton of lithium via the old evaporation method took approximately two million liters of water that the region did not have.

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In addition to lithium extraction, Bolivian entrepreneurs have made forays into the production of lithium-ion batteries. In Potosí, a historically mineral-rich province with a long and brutal history of colonial rule, a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility kicked into operation last November with a goal of scaling up to full capacity in just one year.

A worker mixes electrode paste at YLB's lithium battery production plant in Potosí, Bolivia.Matjaž Krivic

And in Cochabamba, in central Bolivia, Quantum Motors is betting on lithium, too. The company, in operation since 2019, produces electric scooters, bikes, three-wheelers, and tiny two-seater electric cars that are ideally suited for scaling vertiginous slopes in high-elevation cities like La Paz, where traffic is painfully slow.

José Carlos Márquez, CEO and cofounder of Quantum Motors, believes that even an impoverished and politically unstable country like Bolivia can and must shed its dependence on fossil fuels, which Bolivia imports at prices most in the country can’t afford. The goal, Márquez says, is to fit all of his company’s vehicles with Bolivian batteries powered by Bolivian-produced lithium. At present, 60 percent of the components in a Quantum Motors electric car, for example, are made domestically. Márquez’s goal is 100 percent.

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A worker at Quantum Motors, which produces electric vehicles, including two-seater cars designed for Bolivia's steep hills and high elevation.Matjaž Krivic

“Self-reliance is a wonderful thing. But we’re not there yet,” he says. “We need both a strong Bolivian state and plenty of outside help to turn the Bolivian lithium industry into a globally competitive one.”

Lithium’s economic potential is eye-popping. Its price quintupled last year. One ton of lithium carbonate is currently worth $21,000 in the global marketplace. The price of components for lithium-ion battery production also almost tripled over the last year.

Daily samples from the evaporation pools being tested at YLB's laboratory.Matjaž Krivic

And although 636,000 tons of lithium carbonate are expected to be available on the world market in 2022 — at least 200,000 tons more than last year — Fitch Solutions Country Risk and Industry Research estimates that the global demand for lithium will continue to outpace supply by a factor of 10.

All of which could — and should — spell economic renaissance for the lithium-rich regions of Bolivia. But Arce, like his predecessor, still must contend with the frustration of Andean constituents who have largely been left out of the planning of the country’s lithium-based future.

An aerial view of a worker carrying a sample from a lithium evaporation pool.Matjaž Krivic

In his book “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” Uruguay’s Eduardo Galeano writes of South America’s plight: ”Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others — the empires and their native overseers. In the colonial and neocolonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison.”

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In Bolivia, stakeholders and regular people alike are hoping that the continent’s past won’t serve as a blueprint for their country’s lithium-powered future.

Boštjan Videmšek is the author of several books and a journalist who has reported from war zones over the last 25 years. Matjaž Krivic is a documentary photographer from Slovenia. For the past two decades, he has traveled the world capturing stories about social and environmental change.