A massive salt flat visible from space covers a renewable energy resource that could make Bolivia the next Saudi Arabia. But after a late start, can they catch up to the competition?
White stretches as far as the eye can
see in all directions. Salt crystals
crunch beneath shoes. The dry
cold contrasts the overwhelming,
white-hot sun. The Salar de Uyuni,
located in southern Bolivia, stretches to twice the size
of Rhode Island. It is the single largest salt flat in the
Neil Armstrong spotted it from the moon.
The Salar's salt is already fashioned into blocks used to build houses and hotels; one of Bolivia's major tourist attractions is a hotel constructed entirely of salt blocks. Adventurers from across the globe sit at picnic tables constructed of salt blocks and eat their lunches, surrounded by the Salar's white expanse. But the Salar's massive stretch of salt isn't its only claim to fame. It's what lies beneath the salty crust — a mineral-rich brine that contains a treasure trove of lithium, a key to the future of energy. As consumers demand faster, greener and better fuel, neighboring Chile and Argentina are pumping out lithium for lithium-ion batteries, used in laptop computers, cameras and automobiles.
And Bolivia wants to play catch-up.
Living off the Salar
The game starts in the village of Colchani. The town sits still, frozen in time. It is isolated from the noise of urban life, immersed in the whine of the wind as it blows through the small community of salt harvesters on the eastern edge of the Salar. Indigenous Quechua women in long, colorful skirts, shawls and tight braids sit with their backs against the walls of their mud-hut homes. Besides the occasional shipment truck or four-wheeler carting adventureseekers, these Quechua people are each other's only company. Today a woman is watching a table covered with miniature salt alpacas delicately adorned with patriotic red, green and yellow ribbons, plastic bags of salt and other knick-knacks.
These families have been harvesting the salt of the Salar for multiple generations.
"My great-grandparents started," Fanny Calisaya Mamani, a salt harvester in her early twenties, said in Spanish. "But there was no machinery," she continued. "Everything was done with stones. There wasn't any gas either. They didn't have the sales we have now. Everything was natural."
Today, Calisaya's family produces 4,400 pounds of salt per day.
Harvesters go out onto the salt flat and scrape salt into large mounds. The sun evaporates water from the salt mounds, and then salt harvesters shovel the salt into fire pits to further dry it. Harvesters scoop the dried salt into thick plastic bags and seal the ends with steady gas-produced flames, creating their end product: a bag of iodine salt with a label on the front. Truckers come and buy the salt. A 110-pound bag sells for three bolivianos, or about 50 U.S. cents. Salt found in Colchani and the region is sold across the country.
Calisaya was born into this life and she isn't about
to give it up.
"I could do something else, but I wouldn't go," she said, surrounded by hundreds of bags of salt, lit only by the blue flame of her torch and the dim light barely breaking through two smudged windows. "I am already [used to this]; I am with my mom and dad and my brothers."
She said President Evo Morales has promised to protect salt gatherers' lifestyles so they are not forced to give up their work and begin a new era centered on the brine below their salt. Salt harvesters like Calisaya are banking on him keeping his word.
While salt harvesters are working to protect their livelihoods, Morales is trying to protect Bolivia from the exploitation of foreign and private companies. Since his election in 2005, he has been outspoken about his nationalistic position, especially toward natural resources like natural gas. Morales wants Bolivia to control most of the profit and development in the country. To keep profits local, Morales needs to keep self-interested investors out. His plans stem from the history of a nation that has been exploited for the past five centuries, but they might also keep Bolivia's lithium dream from reaching fulfillment if they deter potential investors from getting involved with the country's lithium resource.
In the meantime, a team of engineers with the Bolivian Mining Corporation, or COMIBOL, the acronym for its name in Spanish, is working with sample evaporation pools on the surface of the Salar de Uyuni. The evaporation pools are being used to determine the best brining process for the region. The engineers' noses and mouths peek out between their darkly tinted sunglasses and thick, tan coveralls. These engineers find their way across the Salar de Uyuni using coordinates and the mountain peaks to map out the vast white flats reflected in their sunglasses.
"Once we start production, I would like all of it to be national, but the majority of the time the contrary happens," Iza Vallejo, a lead project engineer, said in Spanish. "For example, gas is always being exported, and there are problems. There are always politics in the middle. It would be great if people from the area could work. The majority of people around here are jobless."
The lithium project will have 500 people on payroll and 2,000 with short-term contracts for road and building construction, said Óscar Vargas Villazón, an economist for COMIBOL. All these workers will be Bolivian, except for the head of the project, who is Belgian.
The Bolivians who will be on payroll are currently being trained at universities around Bolivia.
"Young people in Bolivia understand that lithium is a big opportunity for Bolivia," Vargas said.
Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal. Historically, it has been used in ceramic glazes, and lithium salts have been used in mood-stabilizing drugs. Lithium is also the lightest solid metal, making it a perfect candidate for batteries used in today's digital cameras, laptops and cellphones.
Lithium batteries can also be used in power tools, medical equipment and cars, said Isidor Buchmann, founder and CEO of Cadex Electronics Inc. But these batteries have very low energy density compared to the smaller ones used in digital cameras, laptops and cellphones. Auto mega-producers Toyota and Honda have released hybrid cars that use nickel metal hydride batteries. In 2010, Nissan released its hybrid car that features the new lithium-ion battery, and Chevrolet released the Volt, also powered by a lithium-ion battery.
'What Was Once Ours, Will Be Ours Again'
- Sticking together
Sugar Cane, rare partnership secure local livelihood
- Growth from tradition
A return to old practices could shape the future of 40 percent of Bolivians who depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
- Rooted in controversy
A leaf of immense cultural significance, coca also brings profit to farmers.