Salar de Uyuni

“Lithium is like a beautiful lady, very much sought and pursued, especially in Bolivia. There is data indicating Bolivia has the largest reserves of lithium in the world.” – Evo Morales

Travel Route: San Juan – Salar de Uyuni

There are many beautiful breathtaking places around the world.  I have seen a few, and Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is somewhere at the top of the list.  The size of Lebanon or two times Delaware, Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat globally, with an area of 10,500 square kilometers (4,080 sq mi).  We visited just at the end of the rainy season when a significant portion of the Salar was still covered with a thin layer of water, transforming the flats into a stunning reflection of the sky.  It’s an incredible phenomenon, especially at sunset, which reminded me of the Rorschach psychological test.  Natural beauty with psychological interpretations – quite a combo.

Lithium Mining in Bolivia

A few natural resources are underneath the surface of Salar de Uyuni.  The largest of which is Lithium, the raw material for the current and future energy source, otherwise known as White Gold.  With the increased usage of lithium batteries in mobile phones and electric vehicles, one wonders if Bolivia is on its way to becoming the next global energy supplier, like one of the wealthy Gulf states?

The short answer is: “So far, it’s not.” 

Nine years since Bolivia started its own company to produce lithium, it is still the poorest country in South America.

Why?

Poor economic policies!

The government of President Evo Morales did not allow foreign companies to operate in Bolivia and extract the lithium until very recently.  The Bolivian government wants to tap into the profits of not only the lithium’s extraction, but also the production of batteries.  The explanation is in the numbers: a metric ton of lithium is valued at $9,000 (2018 prices), but once it turns into batteries, it jumps to $4 million.  Unfortunately for Bolivia, it takes world-class engineering, patented technology, and tools it does not currently possess.

One way to make sense of Bolivia’s policies is to view it from a historical perspective: foreign colonial powers and international companies plundered Bolivia’s natural resources.  The fear that its rich resource will, once again, be taken without bringing any of its fortunes back into Bolivia’s economy is a clear and present trauma.