These corporations and other investors around the world want lithium. But Bolivia, which has 35 percent of the world's lithium, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, lacks the infrastructure, environment and political climate needed to attract the interest of investors who, right now, are looking to nearby Chile and Argentina. Between 2005 and 2008, 63 percent of the U.S. lithium supply came from Chile and 35 percent from Argentina, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
   Today, only three salt flats produce this increasingly important chemical: Silver Peak in Nevada, Salar de Atacama in Chile and Salar del Hombre Muerto in Argentina. Only brine and saltpans, pools used to obtain salt through evaporation of saltwater, can produce lithium carbonate, essential for an ion battery.
   "With respect to lithium, we have a lot to give," Vallejo said. "The issue is how we are going to export it."
   Travel to the Salar de Uyuni is a challenge. The Salar is about 340 miles from La Paz. The dirt roads between them lazily loop around hills, past villages and through valleys. Once the lithium is extracted, it becomes an even greater challenge to transport it out of the country because Bolivia lost its ocean access to Chile during the War of the Pacific in the 1800s. But even if Bolivia still had ocean access, the climate and high altitude of the Salar de Uyuni stifles the nation from catching up with lithium-producing neighbors Chile and Argentina.
   Under optimal conditions, Chilean lithium carbonate, which has become the standard for lithium brine operations, takes about 18 months to produce.
   Bolivia's brine has a much higher concentration of magnesium, which is difficult and expensive to extract, while Chilean brine has a very low concentration. The high magnesium concentration may threaten the economic probability of Bolivia becoming a top competitor in the lithium market.
   Also, the Atacama Desert in Chile is very dry, which means a higher evaporation rate. In Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni, where it is wetter and at a higher elevation, the process takes much longer.
   Time is also not on Bolivia's side, as lithium products are highly renewable. R.M. (Matt) Joeckel, a geologist and professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said that lithium's high renewability makes for greener energy and higher efficiency. It also means that lithium products will eventually create a life cycle for themselves. Once a lithium product is burnt out, it can be renewed and reused, and eventually the demand for lithium will decrease as lithium products become more readily available. If this decrease in demand happens before Bolivia develops its lithium into an economically viable commodity and cashes in, Bolivia will have missed a golden opportunity.
   "We understand there is a strategic window, but we think we will be ready in time," Vargas said.

In the face of difficulty
   Despite these constraints, the Sole Regional Federation of Rural Workers of the Southern Altiplano, or its Spanish acronym, FRUTCAS, proposed the idea of a pilot plant to COMIBOL after the U.S.-based lithium corporation Lithco — now FMC Corporation — left Bolivia in 1992. The government broke its contract with Lithco in response to protests. The company wanted to make a multi-million-dollar investment in lithium exploration at the Salar de Uyuni but moved its investment to Argentina's Salar del Hombre Muerto after large-scale protests and hunger strikes.
   "We always had in our minds that lithium was reserved for a better opportunity and that we would [eventually] be the ones who were going to exploit it," Francisco Quisbert, the founder and former president of FRUTCAS, said in Spanish. The federation represents the interests of 60,000 local salt farmers and more than 360 communities in the defense of natural resources, specifically water and lithium.
   Morales launched construction of a lithium pilot plant in May 2008. The plant is an hour walk from the town of Rio Grande on the southern end of the Salar de Uyuni, and the majority of plant employees are from that town.
   "We should use Bolivian people to work here — use our people [and] don't let foreign companies bring their own people," Vallejo said. "Our people are adjusted to work here; it is really hard to do that."
   Dormitories for workers are being built next to the plant. Outside the dormitories, there is a foosball table and a mess hall. Men in navy coveralls and hard hats carry their lunches on trays. On top of a nearby hill, men are building a chain-link fence that will eventually surround the entire complex.
   Bolivia expects the plant to be completed in 2012, according to Guillermo Roelants, the Belgian at the head of the lithium project. Once completed, the plant will begin full-scale testing of the brine and determine the most optimal process for extracting lithium in the region. Vallejo estimates the brining process will be perfected by 2013. By 2014, Bolivia will start to produce 30,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year, Vargas said.
   Quisbert is confident extraction will bring electricity and better infrastructure to the region, not to mention jobs.
   "The goal is to create new industries so there are more jobs," Quisbert said. Another goal is to buy all the materials needed for the project locally.
   "We will have the same efficiency [as competitors], but we will look out for the welfare of all Bolivians," Vargas said. He added that COMIBOL plans to share profits with local populations for developments in gas, electricity and water.
   Besides considering the welfare of local communities, Vargas said COMIBOL's brining process has no environmentally negative effect on the salt of the Salar de Uyuni.
   "The salt is going to be there," Vallejo said. "We're not extracting the salt [permanently], because we return it to the Salar."
   COMIBOL also uses all the components of the salt and the brine. "For example, in Chile they use potassium, and they throw out the rest of the salt," Vargas said. "There are mountains of salt." Bolivia's goal is to use all elements of the brine and salt efficiently to reduce waste.
   Lithium extraction will not affect tourism, Quisbert said. Tourism is in the northern part of the Salar de Uyuni, and the lithium industry is in the southern part.
   The game is not over for Calisaya's salt-gathering community, Quisbert's regional salt-gatherer's federation or Vallejo's employer, COMIBOL. Vargas estimates demand for lithium batteries will climax in five years. A lot can change in five years, and Bolivia is getting closer to fulfilling its lithium dream every day. It is a gamble; it is a coin toss; and Bolivia wants to win.