In the south-western province of Nor Lipez in Bolivia lies the world's largest deposit of lithium. The vast and spectacular Uyuni salt flats sit 3,600 metres above sea level. They are shaped like an inverted cone, 400 metres deep, in which layers of salts have sedimented, interwoven between layers of mud and brine, in which the mineral salts have dissolved.
In recent years, lithium's commercial value has risen astronomically. The development of laptops and mobile phones has depended on lithium batteries, and demand has grown to the point where it is now profitable to exploit the mineral even when it is found in a place as remote and inaccessible as this.
Uyuni is in the department of Potosí, the site of the legendary Cerro Rico (rich hill), which supplied the Spanish colonial regime with silver for 200 years. Mining continued there in the 20th century, particularly after the Bolivian revolution of 1952 which nationalised the mines, creating among the Bolivian people the collective belief that they were now the owners of huge potential wealth that would never again be exploited by "foreign interests".
So strong was this belief that the first attempt to exploit lithium commercially, in 1992 – 10 years before the wave of popular uprisings in defence of Bolivia's natural resources which would culminate in the election of Evo Morales – led to a period of protests across the region, and the then government of Jaime Paz Estenssoro was forced to break its contract with the Lithco corporation.
Today, the potential exploitation of Bolivian lithium exposes contradictions within Morales's government, and the possibility of social conflict, as multilayered as the salt lake itself.
On the one hand, Morales decreed in 2008 that the state would take full control of the exploitation of lithium. A new arm of the Bolivian Mining Corporation was set up with the aim of constructing a plant for the mineral's exploitation.
On the other hand, since 2009 the Bolivian government has begun negotiations with foreign companies with a view to signing contracts for its industrial production. Interested parties include the Japanese firms Mitsubishi and Sumitomo. And there are other possibilities, too: Morales has travelled widely looking for possible joint investment in lithium production with Chinese, Russian and Iranian firms.
Through such partnerships Morales hopes to further fund a number of social welfare projects through the so-called conditional transfer of resources – small amounts of money are given to families, so long as certain conditions are met (for instance, that children are sent to school). This is central to the government's social strategy.
However, the indigenous population of Bolivia's western areas, who are among the poorest people in the country and who have strong communal traditions, appear to disagree with the policy. The social movements that brought Morales to power have mobilised over recent months around demands for local development, and in defence of water rights. In the mind of many Bolivians, the most important thing is that local communities decide on the uses of resources in their own territory.
Bolivia today is undergoing a reconstruction of the state, in the course of which progressive nationalist policies find themselves in conflict with a highly politicised population with its own vision of how best to utilise "the gifts of Pachamama (Mother Earth)". Not only do the Uyuni salt flats sit above multiple layers of strategic minerals, they also raise questions of how to use them – to which there are multiple answers.
Republished from The Guardian