On Bolivian Lithium
From the Series: Green Capitalism and Its Others
Bolivia reputedly holds more than half the world's known lithium reserves, which the latest U.S. Geological Survey estimates at twenty-one million tons, crucial for manufacturing batteries for electric cars and storing renewable energy. Most of this lies under the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, in the southeast of the country, at 3,656 meters above sea level. According to the 2009 constitution passed by Evo Morales’s indigenista government, the country’s natural resources belong to the Bolivian people and must be administered in their collective interest by the state. With the fall of the Morales government (in which some allege that the lithium played a crucial role), what will become of the long-dreamt-of alternatives to extractivism?
The exploitation of lithium was vaunted by Morales’s MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) government as a new model of resource exploitation that could constitute an alternative to the extractivist model widely acknowledged to dominate Latin American economies, no matter what the political policies of their leaders. In 2010 a state company, Yacimientos Litios de Bolivia (YLB), was created to undertake the full chain of lithium production, including exploration, development, industrialization, and marketing, as well as battery plants and car factories. The process was severely hampered however by the classic challenges that reproduce extractivist inequalities across the world; as Latin American’s second poorest nation, Bolivia struggled to establish lithium extraction with its available technological and educational resources.
Bolivians are highly sensitive to the impacts of neoliberal extractivism. Morales was elected in 2005 on a tide of protest among impoverished classes, angry at the appropriation of the country’s natural wealth by foreign companies and national elites, which benefited them little. The extraction of natural gas was widely highlighted as a salient unifying theme in the protests, known as the Gas Wars, following which taxation of hydrocarbons was raised to over 50 percent. Morales vowed to respond to widespread anger with the extractivist model with wealth distribution programs, ensuring that ordinary people would share in the country’s natural wealth. In 2005 around 33.9 percent Bolivians lived in poverty, a figure which has reportedly diminished to 12.9 percent under the current administration, with welfare policies funded by a Direct Tax on Hydrocarbons. However, this expansion of the extractive industries has continued to negatively impact local populations and contribute to existing rifts with indigenous peoples: the Guarani populations are up in arms over gas exploitation on their lands (Postero 2017; Anthias 2018), while the country’s indigenous social movements terminated their support for the MAS during the 2012 TIPNIS crisis (see, e.g., Bold 2019).
Various competitive international tenders were advanced in cooperating to extract Bolivia’s lithium; eventually the contract was awarded to ACI Alemania, which employs just twenty people, was created solely for this purpose, has no experience producing lithium, and is affiliated with ACI Systems, a clean tech and machinery supplier. A series of visits by German government officials persuaded the Bolivians to choose the German company, emphasizing Germany’s commitment to environment protection, and stressing high-level German government backing for the project, potential loan guarantees, and the prospect of supply agreements with German automakers. ACI’s willingness to build a battery plant in Bolivia helped to seal the deal, with Bolivia keen to become a producer of secondary materials.
The deal with ACI was shelved in November, a week before the election which led to Morales’s resignation amid claims of fraud by wide sectors of the population. The president revoked the deal by decree in what he stated was a response to protests organized by Potosi Civic Committee, which claimed it failed to benefit local people; involved too much compromise in favor of the international company; and that the royalties would not be high enough to allow them to build the battery plant.
With the fall of the Morales government, the new chief of the state lithium company YLB Juan Carlos Zuleta has stated that he plans to exploit the lithium without significant foreign investment, instead strengthening local knowledge through a network of outside advisors and increasing Bolivia’s capacity to exploit the lithium domestically. Zuleta is a lithium expert who has worked in Bolivia and Chile. Such a statement might surprise those who saw the demise of Morales as signaling the reappropriation of the lithium by nebulous foreign interests; its actual significance is of course yet to be seen.
The communities of the Salar de Uyuni were connected to the national grid in 2010 and have since seen a dramatic increase of infrastructure and industry. Previously community members collected salt for sale in neighboring towns, combining this with small-scale subsistence agriculture. Morales declared his intention to employ local people in the extractive process, creating issues of the required technical level and specialization. How far will this experiment escape classic extractivist dynamics in which local people lose control over their landscape?
In recent research, I explored the contested “cosmoscape” evoked when Andean community members engage in resource extraction from landscapes their fellows consider to be sacred (Bold, forthcoming). New means of human enrichment contrast and converse with an enduring logic of moderation and respect for the landscape, which has prevented highland communities from taking too much, either from each other or their environments. Can lithium promise a world in which mechaniszation can occur without “taking too much” from the earth, while enriching locals? Bolivian lithium is a continually contested frontline in the struggle to make renewable energy a way of escaping the destructive impacts of extractivism.
Anthias, Penelope. 2018. Limits to Decolonization Indigeneity, Territory, and Hydrocarbon Politics in the Bolivian Chaco. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Bold, Rosalyn. 2019. "Contamination, Climate Change and Cosmopolitical Resonance." In Indigenous Perspectives on the End of the World: Creating a Cosmopolitics of Change, edited by Rosalyn Bold, 91–113. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Bold, Rosalyn. Forthcoming. "Constructing Cosmoscapes: Cosmological Currents in Conversation and Contestation in Contemporary Bolivia." HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory.
Postero, Nancy. 2017. The Indigenous State: Race, Politics, and Performance in Plurinational Bolivia. Oakland: University of California Press.