The quest for the white gold: Bolivia’s long road towards its ‘lithium dream’

The quest for the white gold: Bolivia’s long road towards its ‘lithium dream’

Due to the ongoing climate crisis, the world is currently forced to embark on the challenging mission of globally transiting from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Expanding renewable energy is crucial, but its underlying technologies also require the extraction of resources, such as minerals. One such resource is the much-debated mineral lithium.

Lithium has many uses, but one of the most common ones is as a component of lithium-ion batteries, which are used in solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles. Therefore, this source for green energy storage has also become a source of hope in the fight against climate change. Bolivia, in the heart of South America, holds the world’s largest lithium reserves. Yet, despite recurring efforts, the country has not managed to develop the extraction of its lithium on a larger, industrial scale. Why is this, and what is the story behind Bolivia’s ambitions regarding what is often referred to as “white gold”?

The so-called “lithium triangle” marked on the map (in red) (Credit: Mamayuco / Wikimedia Commons)

Lithium’s Potential and Contradictions

Bolivia’s lithium reserves were discovered back in the 1970s and are mainly located in the gigantic salt desert, Salar de Uyuni. The country forms part of what is often referred to as the “lithium triangle”, together with Argentina and Chile. It is estimated that Bolivia has nearly half of the world’s lithium reserves within its territory, but the exact numbers are largely contested. According to one calculation, the country’s lithium should be enough to provide batteries for 4,8 billion electric cars. While Argentina and Chile have given private foreign corporations access to exploit their lithium reserves since the 1980s, Bolivia’s road has been different. Several Bolivian governments have attempted over the years to invite corporations to tap into the lithium resources. However, these efforts were repeatedly cancelled due to local protests. Like with other mining, lithium extraction has serious environmental consequences. These include the need to get rid of toxic waste derived from the extraction process as well as enormous water consumption. The water issue is an especially big problem in such a dry area like the Bolivian salt desert, where ecosystems are sensitive and surrounding local communities are already affected by difficulties in the water supply.

Evo – A New Era for Resource Governance

Bolivia, a country with a significant indigenous population, elected Evo Morales—its first indigenous president—in 2005. Morales’ party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), came to power through grassroots movements. While in discourse, Morales adhered to the indigenous worldview and holistic philosophy of Buen Vivir and granted nature its own rights, in practice, he followed a model of growth-oriented economic development characterised by state-driven extractivism. He nationalised the country’s oil and natural gas industries and used profits from these to fund social reforms. By 2008, his government had also shown interest in lithium extraction, which was pursued in a more focused manner after the creation of the state-owned lithium company YLB in 2017. As with the other extractive industries, Morales wanted the state to also control the extraction of lithium, largely due to Bolivia’s history of colonial exploitation. The industrialisation of lithium in this way was meant to avoid the historically familiar trap of dependency of simply exporting raw materials, but instead produce lithium-ion batteries and electric cars in the country. Soon, however, Morales partly altered his state-centric policy. His government partnered with several foreign corporations from France, China, and Germany in different, largely unsuccessful projects to develop and industrialise the lithium reserves in the country. The most notable one is the joint venture with the German corporation ACI Systems in 2018.

Evo Morales (Credit: Paula Acunzo / Shutterstock.com)

A Source of Conflict

While fossil fuel extraction has often been a source of socio-ecological conflict, the global ‘green’ transition will likely move this battleground towards resources related to the development of renewables. This was the case with the ACI Systems lithium deal. Like with Bolivia’s previous attempts at lithium development, it resulted in protests in 2019—including a hunger strike—by locals who claimed that the deal with the company would not sufficiently benefit their communities. This eventually led Morales to cancel the deal. The lithium strikes also coincided with protests claiming the tampering of election results by Morales to enable his re-election for yet another term—this election fraud was however later shown to be false. Morales called for a new election but was overthrown in a US-supported coup and fled into exile, only a week after the lithium deal was called off.

A lithium mine in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni seen from above. (Credit: Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE Wikimedia Commons.)

These events have raised suspicions that the purpose of the coup was to open the country’s lithium resources for uncontrolled exploitation by foreign mining corporations. For example, in response to a user on Twitter, Elon Musk, the CEO of the electric car corporation Tesla wrote “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it”, a tweet which he later removed. Whether Musk was serious when hinting his involvement in the coup was not clear, but suspicions remained. The new government, led by right-wing senator Jeanine Añez and much influenced by far-right businessman Luis Camacho—often called “Bolivia’s Bolsonaro”—faced broad opposition from social movements about postponing new elections and therefore delayed lithium plans. Eventually, in October 2020, almost a year after the coup, a new election was held. It was won by Luis Arce from the MAS party, the former Minister of Economy in the Morales government. He called for the industrialisation of the country’s lithium resources and proposed to continue the Morales line of forming joint ventures with foreign corporations but with the Bolivian state remaining in control. In 2021, Bolivia once again made a call for global investment in the sector.

Protests in El Alto, Bolivia against the coup government’s postponement of elections, July 2020 (Credit: Radoslaw Czajkowski / Shutterstock.com)

Prospects for the Future

Bolivia’s lithium ambition is deeply complex and raises many questions. Will the country be able to go all the way with its lithium industrialisation, and will it be possible to expand the extraction of this highly demanded mineral on its own, sovereign terms? Will Bolivia claim the title as the world’s lithium superpower in the post-carbon era? Even so, the core contradiction remains: how climate solutions also rely on similar extractive practices as fossil fuels. Further, while powerful countries show interest in lithium to decrease carbon emissions, Bolivia’s priorities are at this stage focused on economic development due to its peripheral position in the global economy. Similar inequalities exist domestically, reflected by the lithium protests and fueled by the distribution policy and the environmental consequences of the extraction. Overcoming these power relations is therefore a large challenge for Bolivia on a local, national, and global level. While the government’s strategy of resource sovereignty shows awareness of these issues, the question of a scenario where everybody wins remains. Guaranteeing social justice and avoiding dissatisfaction and conflict in the lithium process has been proved to be difficult. There is still a long road left towards the lithium dream, but exactly how long remains to be seen in the near future.

Julian Dannefjord

 

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