I came across this story on the BBC when I was clarifying some facts about Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni for a page on my Andean Observer website.
It turns out that below the surface of the salar lies about 50% of the world's commercially viable lithium deposits. As anyone who has compared a lithium battery to a normal alkaline battery will be aware, lithium stores energy better than alternative substances. Lithium batteries are the preferred technology for new fully electric and hybrid cars being produced by Toyota, GM and other companies. With demand for lithium set to increase rapidly, auto makers are eager to see its production stepped up.
Ironically, impoverished Bolivia once again has something that the rich world desparately wants.
The BBC article itself is quite a good, well-balanced piece. But the guy who writes the copy doesn't get to do the captions, and I can imagine Damian Kahya not being particularly impressed by the note under a photo of salt mounds on the salar that Bolivia's lithium reserves could bring wealth to the country.
As the article points out, wave after wave of resource extraction certainly has not brought wealth to the altiplano. Bolivia is a classic illustration of the 'resource curse', where a surfeit of natural riches within a country produces only massive inequality, corruption, conflict and environmental damage.
Bolivia's government is not enthusiastic about opening up the salt flats to mining. The BBC reports Minister for Mining Luis Alberto Echazu as saying:
"We will not repeat the historical experience since the fifteenth century: raw materials exported for the industrialisation of the west that has left us poor."
This is fair enough. Bolivia's original experience with mineral riches was the mass enslavement of indigenous workers in the silver and tin mines of Potosi. Times have moved on since the 16th century, but the current simmering conflict over gas revenues demonstrates that turning resource wealth into benefit for all is far from a straightforward proposition.
Of the countries 'cursed' with mineral riches, Chile (copper) and Botswana (diamonds) are the notable exceptions where this wealth has contributed to sustainable development. And even in the best cases the unhealthy dominance of a single product produces economic and social distortions. Chile's military still benefits from a law developed during the Pinochet regime which awards it a guaranteed percentage of the revenue from the national copper mining company, and the military's disproportionate strength continues to cast a shadow over local democracy and the regional balance of power.
Bolivia's government is planning a small-scale lithium mining pilot project which will be under local control. The BBC article suggests impatience from the auto companies that this will not lead to enough production quickly enough to satify their demands.
Although it's good that car companies are now getting over their reluctance about developing electric vehicles, this isn't as progressive as it might look. I'm not all that sympathetic to 'no more growth' environmentalism, but in this case the pattern that environmentalists warn about is all too evident. The problems of peak oil and global warming caused by historical modes of western oil consumption are being 'addressed' by moving on to exploit another finite resource extracted from another environmentally fragile setting.
In essence, the purpose of escalating lithium production would be to allow people in the rich world to swap one addiction for another and carry on driving their cars around in the same way as before. In Bolivia, where functional roads are few and far between, and private cars extremely rare, there's an understandable lack of urgency about this objective.
With its 10,000 square kilometres of shimmering salt, the Salar de Uyuni is one the natural wonders of the world. It's not even economically 'idle', but is a focus of tourism which leaves visitors in awe their surroundings and gives reign to the imagination. It would be a tragedy to see such a unique place despoiled by mining.