Bolivia’s Lithium Reserves

Just a cool bus and a bicycling man in Cochabamba, Bolivia

The Plurinational State of Bolivia holds the key to the world’s energetic future. Tucked away under the salt flats of Uyuni, in southwestern Bolivia, lies the largest lithium reserve on the planet. Lithium, a metal now known as “the gold of the 21st century,” is the number one candidate to power the electric cars of tomorrow. Some experts say it will quickly become the most coveted metal in the world, which explains why carmakers and governments from around the globe have suddenly fixed their gaze on Bolivia.

But even before Bolivia was a sovereign nation, it has been the extraction site of one resource wealth after another. First it was the silver-rich Cerro Rico in Potosí. Then it was tin followed by oil and natural gas. At every turn, Bolivia has exported highly valuable resources to the benefit of foreign investors and to the detriment of its own struggling economy. Today, the question on everyone’s mind is: will lithium become yet another chapter of this troubled story?  That’s precisely the question I’m trying to answer in my travels.

My research began in the city of Cochabamba where I spoke with two key individuals. One of them is a prominent Bolivian economist who can talk for hours about state-led development projects here and why he thinks they’re a bad idea. The other is a retired geologist who helped discover Bolivia’s lithium reserves in 1975. Both conversations were exceptionally useful. Learning about the history of state-led development projects in Bolivia helped me put the current lithium strategy into perspective.  Speaking with someone who experienced first-hand the discovery of the lithium reserves more than three decades ago gave me an idea of just how old this issue actually is. And, well, that’s how I found myself doing research in a historical archive. I thought (hoped?) I’d never see the day.

Chewing coca leaves to stay alert at the archive in Cochabamba

Cochabamba has a superb newspaper archive right in the middle of town. It’s called the Centro de Información Bolivia, or CEDIB. Finding this trove of documents is perhaps my greatest discovery yet.  At CEDIB they have been keeping a record of every news article ever published in Bolivia that deals with the lithium reserves. Their records go back to 1992. From the piles and piles of documents, I extracted the names, dates, and important events that are slowly shaping my project.

Now, as I get ready to leave the city of Cochabamba, my bags are too heavy for comfort. But that’s a good thing. It’s been only two weeks since I started my research and I already have more documents than I expected to find here. People have given me books, newspaper clippings, posters, lots of useful advice, and sometimes even their friendship. Those are the things I spent hours packing last night. Soon, they’ll travel with me to the city of Potosí, where the temperature is fixed at frigid -1 degrees Celcius. From there I’ll go to Uyuni and then to La Paz. Things are moving along.

Posted by Juan Víctor Fajardo – MA Candidate at CLACS/ Global Journalism at NYU

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