Bolivia’s salt flats have long been a tourist draw: a great white expanse that, when it floods, becomes an unearthly mirror of the sky. But in recent years visitors may have glimpsed tiny silhouettes of excavators on the horizon – a hint of the industrial future that awaits.
The brine beneath the salt flats contains huge amounts of lithium, the metal essential for the electric batteries and the green energy transition. On Friday, Bolivia announced it would partner with a Chinese consortium to extract it, reviving dreams of a lithium-powered economy.
Surging demand for lithium has caused prices to increase more than 10-fold since 2020, to record highs of almost $85,000 per tonne. And according to the United States Geological Service, Bolivia has 21m tonnes of lithium: more than any other country in the world.
It is yet to extract significant quantities of the metal. But Bolivia may yet have time to join the market while high prices last.
“Today begins the era of industrialisation of Bolivian lithium,” said President Luis Arce, when the new deal was announced.
“There’s no time to lose,” he added.
Bolivia first declared its intent to industrialise its lithium shortly after former president Evo Morales led the Movimiento al Socialismo (Mas) to power in 2006. The Mas has governed for all but one year since, including the current administration.
Throughout, the Mas has insisted on sovereign control of Bolivia’s lithium, with the state trying to develop it alone, or with limited input from foreign companies.
The typical method to extract lithium involves pumping brine into ponds and processing the lithium salts that crystallise once the water has evaporated.
The Bolivian state has invested roughly $800m in this method, with a grid of ponds and an unfinished plant that it says will begin producing 15,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate per annum starting this year.
The deal with the Chinese consortium isn’t the first that Bolivia has signed with foreign companies.
In 2018, it signed a deal with ACISA, a German company, only to cancel it in the face of protests in the city of Potosí, capital of the region that holds most of Bolivia’s lithium.
The Potosí civic committee, an umbrella civil society organisation in the city, began a strike over the terms of the ACISA deal shortly before the October 2019 presidential election. Morales won that vote amid allegations of fraud – later contested – that sparked protests across the whole country.
In response, Morales cancelled the deal with ACISA. But the protests continued, the police mutinied, and the army suggested Morales resigned, which he did.
Morales has described the events of 2019 as a “lithium coup”, claiming the US wanted to punish Bolivia for seeking partnerships with Russia and China – even though the deal was with a German company, and on terms widely seen as favourable for that company.
The civic committee of Potosí has demanded to know the details of the new deal, with the implied threat of fresh protests.
Meanwhile in towns like Río Grande, on the edge of the salt flats, the announcement was met with a mixture of hope and doubt.
“There will be promises of jobs, money and development for the region,” said Donny Ali, a resident of Río Grande and former director of lithium at YLB. “But we’ve been hearing this since the governments of Evo Morales.”
Aside from economic benefits, says Ali, the greatest concern is over water: it isn’t known how much of it is underground, let alone how much of it the lithium mining will use.
Ali has one eye on Chile, where local communities have reaped the benefits – and borne the cost – of lithium mining for years already.
“I want to see if this money has really helped them,” said Ali. “If they really prefer the money – or if they would prefer to have water stability and greater harmony with Mother Earth.”