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From the fossil-fuel fug enveloping Bolivia’s capital La Paz, it takes a diesel-powered four-wheel drive 12 hours – winding through precipitous mountain passes and bumpy back roads - to reach its destination.
But when the Salar de Uyuni finally ranges into view it takes your breath away.
Thousands of square kilometres of white salt - flat as a marble bench and as far as the eye can see.
What you can’t see is the epic wealth lurking below the crust. The world’s biggest reserves of a mysterious, and increasingly valuable metal. Lithium.
Until recently its uses were limited and obscure. Lithium has been used to treat mental illness and to build nuclear weapons. But mobile phones, miniaturisation and now the flight to hybrid and electric vehicles has seen its uses and value soar. Lithium is an important ingredient enabling batteries to store and expel power.
Lithium is really the next oil, the next gold. So it’s amazing what could happen. JUAN CARLOS ZULETA Bolivia’s Mr Lithium
What could happen is a giant missed opportunity.
Bolivia’s socialist leader Evo Morales wants to keep a tight hold on the reserves and harvest the lithium bonanza on his own terms. Bolivian owned and Bolivian operated is the mantra. It’s sprung from a deep suspicion of foreign companies, powerful nations like the USA and Japan and losing out to plunderers through history. But Bolivia remains in a kind of pre-industrial time warp.
“They want us to speed up the handover of lithium and to move faster towards capitalist partnerships But the government’s policy has been determined; we’re going to take our own decisive steps towards the process of industrialising lithium.” JOSE PIMENTEL Bolivian Mines Minister
Mark Corcoran takes us on the ride of a lifetime. From the bizarre and cavernous La Paz to the expansive nowhere of the Salar, 3,700 metres above sea level. The assignment: to see if this economically stunted nation, mired in its past can take a giant leap into the future and out of poverty. Oh, and to take in some awe-inspiring landscapes.
CORCORAN: It is an exotic, alien landscape high on the rooftop of South America - Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. Beneath the saltpan surface, a vast, buried treasure valued at more than one trillion US dollars. But as we discover in our quest to reach this El Dorado, these riches are proving a massive challenge. Will they propel Bolivia into prosperity? Or be tragically missed, as the lost opportunity of all time?
Our adventure starts here, in La Paz, an entire city seemingly swallowed by Bolivia’s answer to the Grand Canyon. In a fossil fuelled traffic jam, it’s difficult to imagine this place holding the key to the planet’s road transport future. This is the story of how the world’s green energy future may depend on the whims of this impoverished nation. Bolivia has half the world’s proven reserves of what’s been dubbed the “oil of the 21st century”. It’s a metal called lithium. Some see it as the economic saviour of Bolivia. For others, it’s simply a curse.
Our odyssey will take us 500 km south along the Andes Altiplano, or high plain, through the pain of history and the roadblocks of modern Bolivian politics. [Traditional celebration] It’s the winter solstice – dawn of the shortest day of the year. Holy men make offerings to the goddess Pachamama – Mother Earth. Raised hands catch the energy of the rising sun, signifying the start of New Year on the Aymara Indian calendar.
Many believe that Pachamama has offered the miracle of lithium to an energy hungry world, but strangely, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous President seems to be in no hurry to exploit this extraordinary gift.
PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [At celebration] In relation to lithium energy, to clean renewable energy, well that’s something we can talk about another day. Today we’ve come to gather sun’s energy for the new year and life force for all Bolivians.
CORCORAN: Here amid the ritual, it’s hard to imagine how the sun can be possibly eclipsed by a mysterious metal and how Bolivia can help catapult the world into a greener, hi-tech future. But that’s precisely the road that’s been mapped for this breathtakingly beautiful but economically stunted place.
Lithium, the world’s lightest metal, has a seemingly mystical range of applications. In its processed, powdered form, lithium carbonate - it powers laptops and mobiles, it’s used as a drug to treat depression and even build nuclear weapons.
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: [Mining Resources Analyst] It’s the new gold because of the potential applications that this metal has.
CORCORAN: But this is what’s fuelling Bolivia’s lithium dream, the new lightweight, lithium ion batteries that will drive the world’s next generation of electric cars. European, Japanese and Korean manufacturers are all jockeying for a slice of the action, but they just can’t get enough of Bolivian President Evo Morales, the man sitting atop this vast energy treasure.
But Morales and his Mines Minister are resolute. They plan to harness lithium at their own pace.
JOSE PIMENTEL: [Mines Minister] They want us to speed up the handover of lithium and move faster towards capitalist partnerships. But the government’s policy has been decided - we’re going to take our own path towards the process of industrialising lithium.
CORCORAN: For 12 hours we track deeper into the most remote corner of South America’s poorest nation. It’s a journey into the past. Our destination? The future. The Salar may well hold the keys to the world’s 21st century transport problems. Our guide, resources analyst, Juan Carlos Zuleta, is Bolivia’s Mr Lithium.
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: Lithium could substitute oil in the future.
CORCORAN: So Bolivia could become the Saudi Arabia of South America?
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: Of the world!
CORCORAN: It’s a landscape like no other. More Antarctic than Andes, but this is salt not ice, a freezing nowhere, 3,700 metres above sea level.
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: Well this is the largest and highest salt lake in the world. It contains the most lithium on earth so welcome to the next energy centre of the world! The Uyuni Salar, Salar de Uyuni. It is at least 10,000 square kilometres so you could have a couple of European countries here. It’s very big.
CORCORAN: For Bolivia’s Indians this is a spiritual place. Created from the spilt breast milk of a mythical mother figure who inhabits the neighbouring volcano. An infectious optimism seems to grip all who step onto the saltpan.
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: The US Geological Service has estimated that we have here about 5.4 million metric tonnes of lithium.
CORCORAN: So how much money lies beneath this salt crust?
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: I estimated a couple of years ago, the lithium underneath this salt lake costs about 515 billion dollars but that is using 1998 lithium prices so we could expect you know, even more.
CORCORAN: With demand pushing up prices, the latest valuation is a staggering 1.1 trillion US dollars. The rush was triggered when the world’s second biggest carmaker General Motors announced that in 2010 it would mass produce a new range of electric vehicles.
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: The current demand is about 100,000 metric tonnes of lithium carbonate, so they’re talking about five times that amount of lithium.
CORCORAN: By when?
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: By 2015.
CORCORAN: Out on the Salar, traditional salt miners harvest the bounty provided by Pachamama. These are a tough, uncompromising people. In their culture, time is measured in decades and centuries. More recently, the vast unspoilt expanse has brought foreigners and their money and built some of the world’s more unusual hotels.
[Walking down corridor of hotel] All this is salt? Everything salt?
HOTEL MANAGER: All salt.
CORCORAN: It’s amazing!
HOTEL MANAGER: There’s the Salar.
CORCORAN: There’s the Salar. So do you think you’ll get as many people come to see a lithium mine?
HOTEL MANAGER: Yes, yes many people. It’s the future of this country and of this region. A lot of people will come because of the lithium.
CORCORAN: These days the town of Uyuni survives on adventure tourism. Westerners lured to the grandeur of the Salar and the photogenic poverty. Twenty years ago, an American corporation wanted to extract lithium, offering less than 10 per cent of the profits to the locals. They were soon run out of town. Peasant leader Francisco Quisbert, says his community now demands half the profits or no deal.
FRANCISCO QUISBERT: Since then, we’ve decided to exploit our natural resources for our own benefit because we see companies that come here and exploit and loot and all that’s left is toxic waste, ruins and cemeteries. Many people say that our natural resources are a curse – others say they’re a blessing from God.
CORCORAN: For Francisco and his wife Juana, lithium promises that most fragile commodity – hope.
JUANA QUISBERT: Yes, it will improve the roads… electricity… We want water… there is none. Everything’s going to get better – the schools will improve, everything will get a little better.
FRANCISCO QUISBERT: It’s always been my wife’s dream that we have a house or an apartment with all the basic services – and she says we should build our own home.
CORCORAN: But on so many levels the lithium future seems too good to be true. Bolivian owned, Bolivian operated, that’s the mantra and this is the result. This pilot plant was due to open earlier this year. Security is tight as we discover, more out of embarrassment than anything else. President Morales boasts that within 3 years, Bolivia will be manufacturing batteries and electric cars. The pilot program is crucial to determining the most cost efficient way of extracting lithium.
Well we came here fully expecting to see this lithium pilot plant up and running, but clearly that’s not the case. Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, is passionate about retaining control of this project, dealing with the multi nationals on his own terms, but if they can’t make this work, you really do have to question the Bolivian’s ability to engage in full scale industrial production. From what we’ve seen so far, Bolivian’s lithium future isn’t looking so bright.
Chemical engineer, Miguel Parra, explains the extraction process. Holes are drilled through the 5 metre thick crust to access the salty brine lake beneath it.
MIGUEL PARRA: This is the brine that contains the lithium.
CORCORAN: What’s the concentration?
MIGUEL PARRA: It’s about 1 gram per litre.
CORCORAN: It’s like gold.
MIGUEL PARRA: Yes, we have gold in the Salar.
CORCORAN: The brine is pumped into evaporation pools to separate salt from the lithium, which floats to the surface. It’s then chemically processed to produce powdered lithium carbonate. Fine in theory, but on the day we visit the ancient drilling rig is unserviceable, a pump broken.
WORKER: They have not acquired any new equipment.
CORCORAN: Such an important job you have here and you are using old equipment?
WORKER: Yes, that’s why we are facing some difficulties.
CORCORAN: Vast evaporation ponds are now being gouged out of the Salar. Within 3 years, Bolivia plans to produce 30 thousand tonnes of lithium carbonate annually, but so far the pilot program has delivered a total of 15 kilograms – enough for just one electric car.
Bolivia’s Mines Minister acknowledges there have been frustrating delays, but says he wants to avoid the mistakes of the past.
JOSE PIMENTEL: We want to have the best knowledge to get the most benefit for the country. We don’t want to act too hastily or precipitate any political action such as we’ve experienced with silver and tin.
CORCORAN: To understand this hesitation, to interpret Bolivia’s lithium dream, you need to visit the trauma of the Spanish colonial past. The San Jose silver and tin mine overlooking the city of Oruro is the place of nightmares.
I have to say it looks like something out of the 19th century. It doesn’t look terribly safe.
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: That’s right. I mean it’s not safe at all.
CORCORAN: Mining is in the blood of every Bolivian. For 500 years Bolivia was plundered for its staggering mineral wealth. The fabled silver mines bankrolled the Spanish empire, then after independence, filled the coffers of foreign mining companies. It was winner take all exploitation on an epic scale.
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: Millions of people died in the mines.
JUAN CAROLS ZULETA: Millions. And well you know these people were recruited from the countryside and they were taken to the mines and it was a kind of slavery at the time.
CORCORAN: And does that affect the mindset of the Bolivian people today when you talk about mining and mines? Are they suspicious of big companies, of outsiders coming in?
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: Yeah, absolutely.
CORCORAN: Today half of Bolivia’s mines are run by fiercely independent co-ops operated by the miners themselves. Dirt poor, there’s little money for safety or the prevention of contamination.
What’s the smell?
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: Well there should be some lead, nickel and arsenic.
CORCORAN: This toxic run off goes straight into the city water supply leading to deformities and brain damage in local children. [entering mine entrance] The miners believe this to be a dangerous spiritual domain, the custodians must be appeased.
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: They killed the llamas here and they offered them to the Diablo of the mine, which is the devil.
CORCORAN: There’s a devil in the mine?
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: Yeah they believe so. So they have to offer him these things because otherwise he would, you know he could get angry.
CORCORAN: And they could die?
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: Yeah.
CORCORAN: And there’s certainly no lithium here, just sacrificed llamas, toxic sludge and the ever-present Diablo, the devil. While the Salar, bathed in hope and sunshine offers the chance of a good life and easy profits. But will the tourists still come if this vista is transformed into a toxic wasteland? Given Bolivia’s appalling track record on mine pollution and the quantity of chemicals needed to produce lithium carbonate, the price of progress may be very high indeed.
FRANCISCO QUISBERT: We’re paying a lot of attention to this. They’ll be building pools but our fear is that perhaps chemical residues will contaminate.
CORCORAN: But any concerns are soon eclipsed by the visions of wealth that lie beneath the salt. The Salar’s riches may be well beyond the scale of anyone’s expectations. The Bolivian government now claims the real size of the lithium reserve is a staggering 20 times larger than the official estimate.
JOSE PIMENTEL: We certainly have reserves of up to one million tonnes of lithium.
CORCORAN: Could you understand people watching this interview, say in the United States or in Europe or in Japan, maybe highly sceptical of your statement that you have 100 million tonnes in reserve here?
JOSE PIMENTEL: If you see on the map the expanse of Salar de Uyuni, it’s enormous.
CORCORAN: But in the ground, Bolivia’s lithium is worth nothing. Just over these mountains, neighbouring Chile and Argentina have already started mining their far more modest lithium reserves. The insistence of President Evo Morales in going it alone, could cost his country dearly.
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: If he doesn’t hurry up then other competitors will take, you know, their shares fairly soon, it will be more difficult for Bolivia to come into the market.
CORCORAN: On their New Year’s Day, indigenous Bolivians gather to celebrate with their President. In power for 5 years, Morales has reversed centuries of discrimination against the Indian majority. Mining companies were often the worst offenders.
PRESIDENT EVA MORALES: [Addressing gathering] Unfortunately we have certain differences with the economic policies that are carried out by some nations.
CORCORAN: Eva Morales is a socialist who views Cuba’s Fidel Castro, as his role model. He’s expelled the US Ambassador, forged links with the Iranians and nationalised private sector energy corporations.
PRESIDENT EVA MORALES: [Addressing gathering] The wealth is concentrated in just a few hands leaving in poverty millions and millions who live on planet Earth.
CORCORAN: With many foreign suitors desperate to get into the Bolivian lithium market, Evo Morales has so far refused to sign any deals, but lithium is a strategic asset. The first world wants it and Bolivia is a vulnerable, politically fragile nation. It’s a volatile combination as so many resource rich countries in Africa can so tragically attest.
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: There’s too much wealth here. We’re surrounded by other countries and it happens to be that at least two of our neighbours also have lithium.
CORCORAN: So you’re worried that lithium could politically destabilise the region?
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: There is a good chance that that will happen. So the government knows that this is a hot issue and I presume that’s why it is taking, you know, too long for the government to make a decision.
CORCORAN: Out on the edge of the Salar, this is quite literally the end of the line. A 19th century locomotive graveyard, testament to past mining ventures, derailed by Bolivia’s volatile politics and unpredictable commodity prices. Despite the potential of the electric car revolution, the enormity of this lithium bounty may not be realised. The future may in fact be a political train wreck as beyond the great Salar de Uyuni, the world will not wait.
JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: It would be a shame if Bolivia loses this opportunity to become the centre of the world in terms of energy. Lithium is really the next oil and the next gold so it’s amazing what could happen if we make the correct decisions.