In the middle of southwest Bolivia sits the
world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni. For thousands of miles there is almost no
development or vegetation—just salt. Throughout history, Salar de Uyuni has been
little more than a popular destination for tourists and photographers attracted to its
endlessly white landscape. However in the late 1980’s, everything changed,
and it seemed as if the entire world wanted a piece of this salt flat. That’s because Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni
contains millions of tons of lithium reserves. The demand for this resource has skyrocketed
over the last few decades, after it was discovered to be an efficient way to power batteries. Compared to other materials, lithium can store
lots of power in a tiny space, making it ideal for cell phones, laptops and electric or hybrid
cars. This would seemingly be a boon for Bolivia
– a country that is both South America’s poorest in per capita wealth, but richest
in lithium. Bolivia is by far the largest part of the
so called ‘lithium triangle’, a collection of salt flats that also stretches over neighboring
Chile and Argentina. These two countries have seen huge financial
benefits from lithium extraction. In the summer of 2016, one Argentina-based
contractor sold the resource for $20,000 a ton— double its usual price. These companies have also brought jobs to
local indigenous communities. At the same Argentinian firm, more than half
of the employees are indigenous people. But big business comes with major drawbacks. Mining sites pollute the air and contribute
to global warming, and extracting the resource requires as much as 500,000 gallons of water
per ton of lithium. In Chile and Argentina, water shortages already
exist in many mining areas, and local communities worry that extraction will eventually run
the region completely dry. Beyond pollution and drought, no one is certain
what the long term effects of lithium mining will be. Many indigenous people fear that when the
salt flats eventually run out of lithium, local communities will be left with nothing
– no jobs, no water, no resource-rich land. Seeing these and other potential disadvantages,
Bolivia’s socialist president Evo Morales was initially resistant to allowing exploitation
of lithium by foreign companies. Morales, who is himself indigenous, has said
that if any mining were to occur at Salar de Uyuni, it would be completely controlled
by the state and would only benefit local communities. The president even added a provision to the
Bolivian constitution that could give indigenous people control other their lithium-bearing
territories. However seeing the benefits mining has brought
to other parts of the lithium triangle, Morales has begun to loosen his grip. The Bolivian government says it will invest
nearly a billion dollars in the lithium industry over the course of three years. It recently signed a mining contract with
a German company and in 2016, exported its first batch of lithium to China. Morales has assured Bolivians that lithium
extraction will be a net benefit for the country, including indigenous communities. But many still worry that the mining operations
will usher in some of the same problems that have occurred in other parts of the lithium
triangle – not to mention other parts of Bolivia. Morales made similar promises regarding oil
drilling in the country’s environmentally “protected areas”. But in 2015, amid widespread protests, the
President opened up the Amazon to private businesses, claiming it would bring development
to impoverished communities. However experts say only about one percent
of these profits have actually gone back into local investments. This is the resource paradox that ostensibly
every country on earth faces: forgo millions of dollars or drill and live with the consequences. For Bolivia, the debate will surely continue. A similar debate is going on in other parts
of the world with gold right now with gold. To find out more about the effects of gold
mining on local communities, check out this video. Thanks for watching Seeker Daily! Don’t forget to like and subscribe for new