ON A CLEAR EVENING at Salar de Uyuni—the world’s largest salt flat, located high in the alpine desert of the Bolivian Andes, and the brightest object on earth when viewed from space—the setting sun cast a huge shadow over a thin layer of rainwater covering the flat. During the day, hundreds of trucks commuted along the flat’s southern rim, while employees of the state-owned mining company Corporación Minera de Bolivia, or Comibol, drilled the salt with enormous rigs. Under large quantities of magnesium and potassium lay the mineral they were after: lithium.
Demand for lithium—a silver metal that has become an essential raw material for electric cars and the batteries of mobile phones and laptops—is booming. In a report last year, the global investment bank Goldman Sachs called it the new gasoline and predicted a three-fold increase in the size of the lithium market by 2025. According to the Bolivian government’s estimates, Salar de Uyuni contains about 70 percent of the world’s lithium; the most optimistic estimates suggest it has reserves of around 100 million tonnes, while the US Geological Survey made a lower estimate of around 9 million tonnes.
Workers transport brine to nearby pools carved out in the middle of the salt flat, some of which are more than a kilometre wide. It is left in the sun for at least three months and then processed into lithium carbonate at Planta Llipi, a factory next to the Rio Grande river. A pilot project inaugurated in 2010 by the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, it produced around 20 tonnes of lithium carbonate in 2016 and is aiming to triple that figure this year. Another lithium factory is expected to be built near the lake by April 2018.
In April last year, Morales—who, after his rise to power in December 2005, nationalised all natural resources, including oil—expressed the hope that Bolivia would eventually set lithium prices for the world. Although the country provided nearly 10 tonnes of the mineral to China last year, it is far behind the world’s top producers of lithium, such as Australia, Chile and Argentina.
Miguel Parra, who heads production at Llipi, explained that geological factors made extraction in Salar de Uyuni more difficult than in Argentina or Chile: “In those two countries, the salt lakes are located at lower altitudes with a much drier climate. And the lithium there is ‘trapped’ under considerably less magnesium and potassium than ours here.”
Other obstacles for Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America, include a lack of technology and skilled human resources. The Llipi plant, for instance, employs around 250 workers, most of whom are manual labourers, and three engineers who run the entire production line.
Joe Lowry—the head of the Global Lithium company, who is known as “Mr. Lithium” by his Twitter followers—recalled that a major lithium company attempted to develop Salar de Uyuni in the late 1980s, but picked Argentina instead. “Thirty years later Bolivia still lacks both infrastructure and the sort of government investors can be comfortable with,” he said.
Residents living near Salar de Uyuni, most of whom make a living by farming quinoa, appeared to be in the dark about Bolivia’s decision to spike lithium production. I spoke to Luisa Flores de Laso from Villa Candelaria, a village just a few kilometres from the salt flat. “No one ever came here to tell us what was going on and what lithium production could mean for us,” she said, as we sat in her small, cluttered kitchen. “We are pretty certain that the local population will not really benefit.” Laso’s husband, Eustacio, said he was not opposed to the increased production, but thought it was vital for locals to handle the lithium plants, and for Comibol to explain the accompanying environmental risks to them. He was also anxious about the company’s plan to collect water from the village: “They ran a few tests and let us know they were ready to start pumping it out of the ground. We told them we hardly have enough for ourselves. But they wouldn’t listen. They said the water was not ours to give, since it belongs to the state.”
Grover Baptista Ali, the secretary general of the Nor Lípez province in the same region as Salar de Uyuni, said the Llipi plant was using water from the Rio Grande river, which has nearly dried up. “The remaining water is thoroughly polluted. I hardly dare imagine what will happen when the project is expanded,” he said. Although the beauty of the area still captivates tourists, Baptista Ali said that with all the digging and trucks, it was becoming unrecognisable. Even the presence of long-necked pink flamingos, that used to spend months of every year in Colchar-K, a municipality in Nor Lípez, has dwindled since the area became the headquarters of lithium carbonate production. “The birds have lost their sense of peace!” a local exclaimed.