- Fabio Cuttica
- A miner piles salt to drain and cure on the edge of Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. A fifty kilo bag sells for three bolivianos, about fifty cents.
At some point in their twenty-one-hour sojourn in the Sea of Tranquility, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong turned from snapping pictures and gathering moon rocks to gaze up at the swirling blue marble of Earth, shining in the blackness a quarter million miles away. A bit below the Equator a cloudless patch revealed the reddish-brown pattern of a mountain range—the Andes, presumably—and nestled in their midst, winking like a coin in a well, was a brilliant patch of white. Armstrong at first mistook the spot for a glacier, but later realized that what he had seen was the last remnant of a vast inland sea, evaporated away over millennia into the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, spreading at twelve thousand feet along the edge of the Bolivian Altiplano. Today, the Salar’s almost perfect flatness is used by NASA to calibrate the orbital altitude of earth observation satellites, making them precise enough to measure the retreat of polar ice to within an inch. Years after the moon landing, Armstrong was said to have visited Bolivia, and made his way to the Salar, to visit the same place he had pinpointed from the Moon. True or not, this is a story that tour guides in Uyuni love to tell.
The Salar de Uyuni is as remote and unlikely a place as can be imagined for the world to seek its salvation, or for a host of postmodern ills to find their cure. But that’s just what the newspapers here and the politicians in Bolivia are saying. We want clean energy, guiltless mobility, days upon days of talk time. And the solution to all the things that hold us back and slow us down, that make us feel unsatisfied with ourselves and our endeavors, is waiting just beneath the surface of the salt. The 4,086-square-mile Salar—flat as a billiard table, twice the size of Rhode Island—hides a great treasure. The billions of gallons of mineral-rich brine just below its crystalline surface hold in solution perhaps half the world’s supply of lithium.
- Fabio Cuttica
- The Salar de Uyuni floods during the rainy season and then crystallizes into a vast plane of hexagonal plates. The Salar is so perfectly flat that its surface can be used to calibrate satellites.
Lithium carbonate, a powdery white mineral produced by evaporating and processing the Salar’s brine, is the raw material for lithium-ion batteries, a key power source in modern technology from cell phones to electric cars. Lithium is lightweight and capable of storing energy far better than other battery technologies, and demand for it has risen tenfold in the last decade. Auto-industry analysts estimate that within a decade perhaps six million electric cars will be manufactured annually, and at the moment, they are all set to depend on lithium batteries. Bolivian President Evo Morales is lithium’s greatest champion; he sees the resource as Bolivia’s chance to redeem centuries of economic plunder at the hands of outsiders. Morales is an indigenous Aymara and former coca farmer who rose to power in 2005 on a platform of broad social reform, overwhelmingly backed by Bolivia’s impoverished indigenous majority and a coalition of social movements. Morales has put great hope in Bolivia’s lithium. If his vision can be borne out, the poorest country in the Americas will vault clear over the twentieth century and into the ranks of industrialized nations. With a market price for high-grade lithium carbonate of almost six thousand dollars a metric ton (or “tonne”), Bolivia would stand to make billions.
But Morales foresees far more than the mere selling of raw materials. He dreams of the value added: Bolivian-made lithium-ion batteries will power smart phones and laptops across the world, and a country where barely 5 percent of the roads are paved will one day produce lithium-run electric cars for export. The US Geological Survey has estimated that the Salar has 5.4 million tonnes of lithium carbonate—enough, by some calculations, to convert the entire global vehicle fleet to electric and supply them for two hundred years. If Bolivia’s lithium dreams were made manifest, the era of oil and American economic and political dominance might finally come to an end, and perhaps even global warming could be averted.
- Fabio Cuttica
- Bolivian President Evo Morales, an indigenous Aymara who previously worked as a llama herder and coca farmer, believes that the Salar's lithium will help his impoverished country industrialize and become a technological powerhouse.
While the Salar de Uyuni holds the planet’s largest lithium reserves, Bolivia has never industrialized its production. Just over the mountains, Chile is the largest producer in the world, concentrating lithium brines in vast evaporation ponds in the Atacama Desert. Argentina’s Salar del Hombre Muerto is the second-largest producer, and the vast Andean region the two countries share with Bolivia is sometimes called the Lithium Triangle. China, Australia, and Canada are all ramping up production, and a huge new reserve was discovered last year in Mexico. The US, by far the biggest consumer of lithium in the world, has only a single brine-processing facility in Nevada. If Morales’s great hero Che Guevara were alive today, he would doubtless take up the banner of lithium as a revolutionary imperative. One of Morales’s favorite sound bites holds that “Bolivia will be the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” ushering in a bold new age of technological and economic progress for his people.
Leery of Bolivia’s long history of resource exploitation by outsiders, President Morales has so far rejected the advances of foreign companies. “The state doesn’t see ever losing sovereignty over the lithium,” he vowed in a 2009 press conference. “Whoever wants to invest in it should be assured that the state must have control of sixty percent of the earnings.” This is not the kind of deal that brings mining conglomerates knocking at the door. So Bolivia has decided to go it alone, and Morales has begun construction of a pilot lithium-processing plant on the far side of the Salar. The initial phase will be small-scale, I have been told, but if it succeeds, a far larger industrial plant will be built to fully exploit the Salar’s vast potential, and set Bolivia’s course toward the future.
But will it work? Can technology get us out of the fix that it has put us in? Can a country that has had its vast mineral wealth exploited for centuries hang on to this new treasure? And if lithium is the engine of future progress, can Bolivia move fast enough to catch that train? I have come here to visit the Salar and the pilot plant, to dig around the edges of these questions, which speak to so many of our civilization’s preoccupations and aspirations.
- Fabio Cuttica
- A llama outside a mud-brick house in the town of Uyuni. For centuries, indigenous miners would carry salt to the lowlands by llama train.
After a bone-jarring twelve-hour bus-and-train combo, in which the entertainment was a dubbed version of Over the Top, Sylvester Stallone’s 1987 jingoistic tour de force about competitive arm wrestling, I arrive in the dusty high-desert town of Uyuni, on the eastern edge of the Bolivian Altiplano at twelve thousand feet. The town center houses an open-air market; Aymara women with bowler hats, long braids, and petticoats sit cross-legged by huge piles of potatoes, tomatoes, secondhand shoes, whatever they have to sell. Dogs sleep in the shade on medians as dusty buses roll out of town, barkers shouting destinations from their running boards. The town’s population is around ten thousand; its main avenues are dotted with socialist-realist sculptures of heroic miners shouldering their picks and waving their comrades onward.
Uyuni was built on mining, and now has great dreams of a lithium rush, but for the moment there is only one real resource to exploit: an endlessly replenishing lode of backpackers, revolving around their Lonely Planets, who have come to see the wonders of the Salar. Thirty thousand visitors come yearly, on average, but Uyuni still seems slightly far enough off the beaten path to promise a whiff of authenticity, instilling a vague hope that one can have a less mediated experience than is found in a tourist hell like Machu Picchu or Lake Titicaca. Such aspirations are soon shattered by the dozens of tour outfitters that line the main street and the ten-dollar-a-night hostels that pack gap-year Kiwis, Colorado frat boys, and post-IDF Israelis together like herrings in communal barracks. Uruguayan hippies in striped clown pants juggle at intersections for pizza money. Everyplace from Barrow to Ushuaia is part of the backpackerland circuit now, a vast list to be ticked off between overnight bus rides or updated on Facebook. (A snippet of overheard conversation between two sun-baked Brit-kids outside a hostel: “What did you think of the salt flats?” “Brilliant!” “Brilliant?” “You?” “Wasn’t as good as the Amazon.”)
- Fabio Cuttica
- A storm gathers over Uyuni. In this windswept and barren area, lithium mining and tourism are the best hope for the high desert region's economy.
Still, I can’t fully criticize the impulse that has drawn them here, and not just because I spent a good deal of my twenties chasing similar Shangri-las all across the world. Even coming here as a reporter is a form of such experience-mining, following veins of curiosity and ambition toward the big get—and I am only the latest in a long line of journalists who have arrived in Uyuni chasing the lithium story. The New York Times was here last winter, as were Time and PBS, Forbes and Bloomberg, but my heart sinks into my shoes when I hear from the owner of a pizza place that a New Yorker writer—and Pulitzer-winner to boot—was here just a few weeks ago, touring the Salar, scribbling notes.
In the morning I attach to a twenty-dollar day tour onto the Salar, and am soon jovially packed into an ancient Land Cruiser with a polyglot crew of travelers: Barcelona, Tokyo, London, two guys from Chicago who have quit their finance jobs to blog their way around the world. We bounce along the dirt track out of town, and the brown sand and thorns soon give way to mud streaked with white, and then the bouncing stops as the land flattens further, and the blinding infinitude of the Salar spreads out before us like a frozen ocean.
Near the edge we stop at a small cluster of tin-roofed shacks, where a salt miners’ collective operates. Spread with Euclidean perfection across the planar surface are hundreds of waist-high pyramids of salt, piled up to drain before being shoveled into the backs of dump trucks by hand. For centuries people have traveled here to harvest salt, carrying it out of the mountains on heavily-laden llama trains. Little has changed save the conveyance. I stop to talk to two men resting against their shovels on a bank of piled salt. They wear sunglasses and wool ski masks for the glare, sweaters even in the hot sun. Scores of salt-filled bags are lined up before them. They are a father and son named Max and Brian, fifty and twenty. The names strike an odd note of aspirational suburbanism for Bolivian salt miners. They are filling their quota: 600 fifty-kilo bags at 3 bolivianos apiece. That is about 33 tonnes of salt, harvested by hand, for $250. It is a decent take for a few days’ backbreaking work, in a country where per-capita GDP is a tenth that of the US. Max pulls a cell phone from his pocket and cups his hand to try and read a text message in the glare. I ask him if he knows about the lithium and Morales’s grand plans to turn the Salar’s mineral wealth into the engine of Bolivian prosperity and environmental redemption.
“Yeah, I know all about the litio. I’ll believe it when it happens, but I don’t expect much to come of it, not for us anyway. Evo makes a lot of promises. He promised us an international airport. Where’s that?” Max has struggled here too long to expect real change to come overnight, if ever. And if I want to take his picture, I’ll have to buy him a bottle of Coke.
We continue on, driving out onto the boundless white, stopping for a few minutes at a hotel built entirely of cut blocks of salt: walls, tables, beds, chairs. There don’t appear to be any guests. A sign out back kindly requests that no one urinate on the salt hotel. The light is so intense that I forget I’m wearing sunglasses. Every inch of exposed skin is slathered with sunblock, but I’ll later wince when I find the inside of my nose has been burned by the reflected sunlight. When we are all in the Land Cruiser again, I ask the driver, Jaime Ruiz, what he thinks about Morales’s lithium plan. He’s skeptical. He doesn’t think lithium exploitation will affect the Salar in the short term, but if they take all the lithium out he worries it will wreck the place. And he’s heard rumors that they’ll want to dig giant trenches into the Salar, to have easier access to the brine.
The salt stretches for a hundred miles in some directions, and soon we are almost entirely out of sight of land, the Andes looking like distant islands. The Salar floods each rainy season; a foot-deep lens of water becomes a gran espejo (a great mirror), doubling the sky. Now the surface is dried out, and the salt crust has crystallized into an infinite tessellation of hexagonal plates, crazed like ancient enamel. The landscape is lunar and Antarctic and Saharan simultaneously.
Near a cactus-studded outcrop of rock called Isla de Pescados (Island of Fishes), we stop for lunch in a parking lot in the middle of the void. A mangy emu someone has dragged out here struts and bobs its way between picnic tables, looking for handouts. Dozens of other identically corroded Land Cruisers spill their cargo of tourists, who fan out across the salt, cameras poised. The bright light and perfect flatness of the salt allows for all sorts of perspectival photographic gimmicks. A person in the distance can be made to appear a few inches tall, standing in the palm of a hand or about to be crushed beneath a foot. Props are broken out: a toy dinosaur appears life-size, a girl pirouettes on the lip of a wine bottle, a group of lobster-red British girls stand perched on a dog-eared copy of South America on a Shoestring. Bodies are contorted into letters, sending messages home. The Salar is a tabula rasa, a dry-erase board of the gods, upon which one can inscribe any fantasy, whether of trick photography or lithium revolution. And then the rains come and pass, and the Salar dries out again to a perfect, crystalline emptiness.
A Very Brief History of Lithium
Li, atomic number three, is thought to be one of the first three elements, along with helium and hydrogen, synthesized in the moments after the Big Bang. On Earth, lithium is found in certain shales and clays, as well as in solution in the mineral-rich brines beneath salt flats. Lithium, the lightest of any solid element, is silvery white in its metallic form but quickly oxidizes to black in air. The highly reactive metal floats (and also explodes) in water, so it is generally stored in oil.
Recoverable global reserves are variously estimated at 11 to 40 million tonnes, though the oceans may contain as much as 230 billion tonnes of dissolved lithium. This is of limited utility, as that lithium, like the 25 billion ounces of dissolved gold in the oceans, is far beyond our means of exploitation.
Historically, lithium has had a wide range of industrial uses: in ceramics, lubricants, aircraft alloys, as a fusion material in nuclear weapons, even in the manufacture of crystal methamphetamine. Lithium’s pharmacological properties as a mood stabilizer were recognized as early as the 1870s, but it wasn’t widely adopted as a therapy for the manic phase of bipolar disorder until a century later. The precise neurochemical mechanism of the drug is still not fully understood, but its effects are beyond doubt: it possesses an extraordinary capacity to rein in violent mood swings and control impulses, often in patients for whom nothing else has worked. A 2009 Japanese study of naturally occurring lithium in drinking water found that towns with higher concentrations had lower suicide rates. In 1929, a soft drink with the nearly unpronounceable name “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda” was invented by Charles Leiper Grigg in St. Louis. The soda’s active ingredient was lithium citrate, and it was marketed as a hangover cure and nerve tonic. Within a few years, Grigg settled on a snappier name: 7-Up. One theory holds that the number seven is an oblique reference to the atomic mass of lithium. The metal remained in 7-Up’s formula until 1950.
But its technological applications are what have garnered lithium the most attention. In the form of lithium carbonate, it is a key component of lithium-ion batteries, which are rechargeable and can store more energy for their weight than any other battery material. The main concerns in the development of electric cars are weight and range, and lithium performs the best on these counts of any current technology. It is already the power source of choice for billions of laptops and cell phones. The volatility of lithium presents a technical challenge in battery design, particularly in cars: nobody wants to design an electric Pinto, and the smallest introduction of moisture or dust into a lithium cell can cause a violent reaction. In the next year, two zero-emission electric cars, the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, are going to be released on the market. But there are drawbacks: the Volt will only be able to travel forty miles—at most—on a single charge. If they succeed commercially, however, and the estimated six million lithium-powered cars to be built annually by 2020 become a reality, a lithium market that has already risen by an order of magnitude in the past decade could be sent into the stratosphere.
- Fabio Cuttica
- The lithium pilot plant being built by Comibol, Bolivia's national mining corporation. The pilot plant will test and process lithium carbonate samples from around the Salar.
The following day I’m up at sunrise, and another rusty Land Cruiser picks me up for the two-hour drive around the outer edge of the Salar, to see Evo Morales’s lithium pilot plant, on which so many expectations are hung. The month before, national newspapers had published a photograph of Morales visiting the plant, standing on a stage in a hard hat, garlanded with flowers, holding aloft the first kilo of Bolivian lithium carbonate produced from Uyuni’s brine with an enormous smile on his face. He was quoted as saying, “Lithium is the hope not only for Bolivia but for all the people on the planet.” Herds of vicuñas, wild relatives of alpacas, leap out of the road in front of us as we race through the scrublands alongside a string of enormous electrical towers. At some point the towers jog left, not toward the lithium plant, I am told, but to the huge San Cristobal silver mine, owned by a Denver company.
We continue on cratered roads, and then down a sandy track, until we reach a barrier at the entrance to a large building site at the base of a sandstone cliff. A guard comes out and hands everyone plastic hard hats, then opens the gate. There is a steel frame of a half-finished building, still covered with wooden scaffolding. A few workers weld sections of steel roof beams together. Atop the cliff a gigantic wiphala, the rainbow-checkered flag of Morales’s indigenous group, shreds to ribbons in the unchecked wind blowing off of the Salar.
- Fabio Cuttica
- The sunlight at twelve thousand feet is so intense that workers at the lithium pilot plant must cover all exposed skin.
We are met by Marcelo Castro, the pilot plant’s manager. He is a stocky man in tan cover-alls, with a wild mess of black curls poking out from under his hard hat. He walks us around the plant, what there is of it, narrating as he goes. The Bolivian government has invested $5 million in the site, and has repeatedly pushed back the launch date. We walk through empty concrete corridors and Castro points out where the labs will be, where the staff quarters will be, where the windows one day will be. Castro has grand visions for the place as a cutting-edge laboratory, but despite the enormous power lines that traced the road for much of the drive here, the pilot plant is completely off the grid, running off diesel generators. There are two computers, a spotty satellite connection, nothing more. Water is brought in by tanker truck. In a conference room we sit down around a plywood worktable over a lunch of salchipapas—hot dogs and fries covered in mayonnaise. Castro rubs his eyes, runs his fingers through his hair theatrically, and holds forth on Bolivia’s lithium revolution, of which this plant is the vanguard. This pilot plant is a national imperative, and what he wants to avoid most is further exploitation of Bolivia’s wealth by outsiders. It is a common rhetorical theme, from Morales down.
“Private companies only care about profit; they have no interest in the region,” Castro says. “We want this project to benefit the Bolivian people. We want to help the people with this exploitation. It would be a huge compromise to work with private companies. The end result would be that the country wouldn’t have a future. In the past they just exploited, exploited, exploited. What do you gain with a little money, a few million, if you destroy the country?”
I ask him whether this plant will ultimately benefit the locals, or whether all of the profits will go directly to the government just as they would to a corporation. He shakes his head. “Everybody in the region supports what we are doing. It’s the only way to guarantee that we are treated right. This is the vital part, the fundamental part, that communities have a part in this.”
Castro was present in October when Morales came for a press conference and held the first kilo of lithium carbonate for the photo op. “We presented him with the kilo of lithium, and this indicated the road ahead would be much easier.” Castro calls the promises of corporations a “rosary of lies,” but insists Morales’s government is different. Castro is a furiously true believer that Evo’s vision can be made manifest.
Not every observer of Bolivia’s lithium story agrees. Juan Carlos Zuleta, an economist and consultant who has written extensively on the lithium issue in Bolivia, begins from a similar starting point. “Lithium is going to change the world,” he told me, and he believes that we are poised at the beginning of a paradigm-shifting moment in technological civilization. But Zuleta—with glasses, beard and a mane of black hair streaked with silver—insists that the government is going about things in the wrong way. Speaking of the pilot plant, he told me that “they are taking too long to do something that’s not really a great discovery. The results that they have obtained thus far are not outstanding, whatsoever.” By insisting on going it alone, the Bolivian government has hamstrung itself, allowing the lithium era to begin without it.
Bolivia can capitalize enormously on its lithium bonanza if it acts wisely and quickly, Zuleta believes. But he has little faith in the people in charge. “The problem with these people is that they haven’t done their job, and they’re trying to justify themselves,” Zuleta says. “So what they’re doing is they’re wasting their time and they’re wasting the country’s time.” In a recent essay, Zuleta stated that lithium is the “the most important strategic game our country has ever faced.” I asked him what he meant by that. “This is a much bigger business than gas. If Bolivians have been able to overthrow a government because of gas,” he told me, referring to the popular uproar over foreign gas rights that helped bring Morales to power in 2005, “then something like that could happen because of lithium. Why not? And the government knows that.”
Castro leads me out of the conference room into the blinding light, and walks me past a long row of primary-colored barrels, each partly filled with brine samples taken from different spots on the Salar. The samples range in color from Budweiser to Gatorade. A twenty-four-year-old metallurgist named Viviana Taqui explains that she is measuring their evaporation rates and mineral concentrations. The best brines in the Salar have one gram of lithium carbonate per liter, and to make them feasible for processing they must be evaporated to a concentration of forty grams per liter. Uyuni, with its long dry season and high altitude, can evaporate over a meter of water a year. This sounds advantageous, but pales in comparison to the Atacama Desert, just over the Andes in Chile. The Atacama is the driest desert on Earth, with an evaporation rate more than double that of Uyuni, giving it a huge economic advantage in lithium production. Chile produces two-thirds of the world’s lithium supply. Seifi Ghasemi, the CEO of Rockwood/Chemetall, a corporation with vast mineral holdings in the Atacama, has claimed that even if the US car market were converted to 100 percent electric, Chile alone could meet demand for a century.
Enrique Arteaga, a former Bolivian mining minister and industry consultant, has similar criticisms. “I agree that Bolivia needs to stop producing just raw materials,” he contends, “but we’ve never succeeded in industrializing anything. Not silver, not tin, not even coca.” In his view the Bolivian government is being naïve about the market forces it is up against. “They don’t realize that the world does not need Bolivian lithium,” he told me. Arteaga finds the oft-repeated phrase about Bolivia being the Saudi Arabia of lithium absurd. Bolivia has enormous reserves, of course, “but what have a lot of reserves to do with the market? Nothing. We cannot control the market because we cannot compete, because at any time Chile could get a lower price.” In fact, Chilean companies did exactly that in October 2009, slashing lithium prices 20 percent following Bolivia’s announcement of its industrialization plans.
The Mining Ministry’s Director of Evaporitic Resources, Saul Villegas, contends that Bolivia’s underdog status can work to its advantage. “Because we’ve been so behind we’re able to take advantage of all these advances in technology,” he told me. And being behind schedule on industrialization is in keeping with their plans to market the metal internationally. “Bolivia is entering the lithium market in a responsible manner. We don’t want to flood the market. We want this to be sustainable for many years.”
Arteaga thinks the government is going about the process all wrong, but he doesn’t blame Morales, “because he is not an educated person. He didn’t even finish high school. It is the people who manipulate Morales whom you should condemn.” Arteaga points to Leftist activists and nongovernmental organizations, many from Europe, who serve as policy advisers in the Morales government. “So we are manipulated by foreigners,” says Arteaga. “Again.”
In the boundless isolation of the Salar, none of the external criticism dissuades Castro’s vision. “This is a great project, and it has great significance in the life of the country,” he says. “We have to work hard at it, and we have to defend it.” Like some character out of Conrad, he will man his outpost to the last, and seems untroubled to be cut off from the outside world. Now forty-eight, he came to the salt three years ago, leaving his wife and three children behind, believing that total commitment to the lithium revolution was of greater importance. “Up until three years ago I had a family, but when I began this project, I left that behind,” he says. “I had to make a decision that wasn’t ego-driven. The country needed my service. This work isn’t for me; it’s for others.” It is the sort of socialist self-abnegation that Morales has long asked of his people, and Castro reveals no regrets at all. He’s too excited about the future to have regrets. “This is the first time we’ve had an opportunity like this, in the life of the country.” He waves his arm at the months-behind-schedule construction site, as though he can will it finished. “It is a historic opportunity!”
I follow him across the site, through a sad dustbowl of a vegetable garden, to a series of low cages built into the shadow of the sandstone cliff. In the first chicken-wire cage, several Siamese cats pace in the shady recesses or stare at us with bright blue eyes, languorous but alert, like a pride of tiny lions. In the next cage chickens scratch the sandy soil, and in the next some glum-looking ducks are decidedly out of their element. Another cage holds dozens of rabbits, nibbling on wilted piles of vegetable scraps. The last cage is swarming with activity, the floor alive with hundreds of furry balls scrambling for cover as we approach. “Cuy,” says Castro, smiling and rubbing his belly. Guinea pig, usually roasted with its head on, is a delicacy in the Andes.
We load into Castro’s jeep and drive out of the plant’s gate. By the guardhouse a pair of men squat in the dust next to a beat-up motorcycle; the guard tells Castro they are locals who have come looking for work. Castro tells them to come back another day. Whatever the economic benefits of the lithium plant turn out to be for Bolivia, there is no guarantee of a trickle-down effect into the local economy. The heavy lifting of lithium production is done by the sun, and much of the processing will be automated. Castro hedges when I ask him how many jobs a full-size industrial plant could create, but it seems clear that there won’t be a great need for unskilled labor like that offered by the men waiting by the gate. We leave them there and head out toward the Salar.
Lithium, in Castro’s estimation, is not the important thing. What’s important is the opportunity it affords to alter the Bolivian mind-set. “We are going to improve the conscience of this country. This is not a casual thing,” he insists, pounding the steering wheel for emphasis with each rhetorical point. “What’s the best thing in life? Is it to have three cars? No! It’s to have free education for your life. To have health care all your life. It is not to have three houses. It is to have opportunities.” Those opportunities, he adds, might also include building a pyramid of salt on the Salar to attract the tourists, or having paragliding from the cliffs above the pilot plant.
- Fabio Cuttica
- A tourist bus skims across the flooded surface of the Salar, one of Bolivia's chief tourism draws. Over thirty thousand foreigners visit each year.
The dirt road turns to mud, then salt, and soon we are flying across the endless crust at seventy-five miles an hour, wind roaring in the open windows and Peruvian cumbia blasting through tinny speakers. Castro pounds the dash in time with the percussion as he drives, and I ask him what kind of music is his favorite. “Any that has passion!” he shouts. The hexagonal plates of salt are a blur, and with no frame of reference in any direction, only the wind indicates that we are moving. After a while a small cluster of vehicles and equipment appears before us: dump trucks, bulldozers, a road grader, a steamroller, all scattered like toys left in a sandbox. In the middle, a lemon-yellow Volkswagen bug is parked, as if waiting for a commercial shoot. A dozen men in coveralls, ski masks, and sunglasses stand in the shade of the machinery.
These are Castro’s men, and they live and work out on the Salar, three weeks on and one week off, as cut off from the outer world as an Antarctic research station. At night the wind howls over the salt. “There is no drinking, nothing much to do but listen to music,” says Grover Ocaina, a twenty-eight-year-old from a nearby town. “If we didn’t get off the salt once in a while, we’d go crazy.” Their quarters are metal trailers like gypsy wagons, stacked with bunks. Another trailer serves as a kitchen, and a plump Aymara woman with petticoats and Terminator sunglasses bends over a washtub full of dishes, a huge plug of coca bulging in her cheek. Around the camp the salt is stained with oil and rust, a tiny blemish against the unending white.
The workers are loading a truck with two five-hundred-gallon containers of concentrated brine, called salmuera, to be hauled to a government lab in La Paz, a day’s drive away. Just beyond the camp, a large square the size of a swimming pool has been cut into the salt crust. A well bore has been sunk next to it, and milky turquoise brine is pumped out to evaporate in the merciless sunlight. In places the salt is forty meters thick, and the brine collects between its crystallized layers. Evaporation is one of the cheapest means of extracting lithium, a third the cost of getting the element from hard-rock ores like spodumene. But Uyuni’s brine has an inordinately high concentration of magnesium, twenty times as much as lithium, and that adds expenses and complicated steps to the production of lithium carbonate.
- Matthew Power
- A pool of brine, pumped from beneath the surface of the Salar, is left to evaporate in the sunlight, concentrating the lithium for processing.
But the technical obstacles to making the lithium dream a reality pale in comparison to the political ones. In 2006, Morales nationalized Bolivia’s enormous natural-gas reserves, sending troops and engineers to occupy foreign-owned production facilities. Threatening a complete government takeover, Morales strong-armed corporations into signing new contracts that gave Bolivia an 82 percent share of all revenues. This sent foreign investment streaming for the exits, but for poor Bolivians it was a step toward economic justice after centuries of foreign exploitation. Bolivia is a place of unimaginable mineral wealth that seems never to benefit from that fact, and Morales was taking a stand. And with lithium he would make a similar stand. Twenty years ago an American company called Lithco was hoping to exploit the Salar’s brines, but protests by organized labor and student Leftists drove the company off. Lithco set up a production facility in Argentina under a different name, and has been there ever since. Today Argentina is the second-biggest producer of lithium in the world.
But even with such precedents, and Morales’s insistence on Bolivian control, multinational corporate suitors came, hoping to strike some deal for the lithium: LG from Korea, Mitsubishi from Japan, Bolloré from France. If lithium were really the key to the electric-car future, securing supplies might make playing along with Morales worthwhile. The day I arrived in La Paz, panting with oxygen deprivation, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a brief stopover in Bolivia, meeting Morales in the presidential palace and signing a memorandum agreeing to cooperate on lithium research. Perhaps merely a way of antagonizing their common foe, the US, but it certainly added another layer of intrigue to the great lithium game.
- Matthew Power
- A small bird, perhaps mistaking the brine for potable water, is crystallized in the salt by the pool's edge.
And there is a broader technological debate going on far outside of Bolivia’s local ambitions. Heated arguments have played out online over the size of the global lithium supply, and over whether we are entering a dark age of “peak lithium” in which other technologies will surpass it. Part of the problem is that nobody can say with great certainty how much lithium is available in the world. The numbers for the Salar de Uyuni come from a decades-old estimate created by the United States Geological Survey, and newer estimates vary wildly, several claiming that Chile and Argentina have greater supplies than previously suspected. Industry critics say Bolivian lithium is a canard, a measured dose given to the volatile and impoverished Bolivian populace to stabilize the economic mood. And a new development may make Bolivia’s rush to industrialize all the more urgent. In June, press reports carried word of a long-buried Pentagon study of Afghanistan’s vast mineral riches—estimated at over $1 trillion. The New York Times reported breathlessly of the exploration of Afghan salt flats, which might dwarf Bolivia’s lithium supply. An epic historic irony, that one of the few countries in the world that is poorer, less stable, and has worse infrastructure might in the end steal Bolivia’s claim to be the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium.”
Moreover, as battery technologies have improved, the amount of lithium actually required has decreased. Lithium-air batteries, currently under development by IBM, have the potential to be much lighter, with far higher storage capacity, than current lithium-ion batteries. Researchers at Stanford and MIT have made advances with nanowire technology, using tiny filaments of carbon or silicon to increase a battery’s storage capacity by as much as ten times. So the lithium-supply debates may be answered at the product end before the geological end even matters. And on the far edges of technology, things get stranger: Swedish researchers have begun developing a new battery based on the conductive and energy-storage abilities of green algae.
Castro drives us farther into the Salar, away from the station and the earth-moving equipment. The salt extends to the horizon, and the curvature of the earth seems visible. One could have some grandiose hallucinations in a place like this, and in some ways it’s amazing that Castro is so levelheaded. After a few miles we come to another pool of greenish brine, slowly evaporating in the middle of the vast nothingness. Castro pulls an empty soda bottle out of his jeep and bends to fill it at the pool’s edge. I notice that in the far corner of the brine pool a small bird has landed and drowned, its splayed wings already crystallized in the salt.
The environmental impact of lithium exploitation, if it ever reaches the industrial stage, is still unclear. The Salar is a unique ecosystem, home to millions of migrating flamingos and many endemic plant and animal species. Castro says that care for the environment will be a primary concern, and that fears of huge trenches being dug are unfounded. One has only to look at the deforestation caused by soybean farming in the Amazon lowlands or the massive tailing piles that leach poisons from lead and copper mines around the Andes to see that, when economic progress is at stake, Bolivia has a poor record of protecting its environment. But by all accounts, and the fate of the little bird drowned in brine aside, evaporative mining could be the cleanest means of resource extraction Bolivia has ever encountered.
We continue across the Salar, our progress almost immeasurable, until a low rise of hills becomes visible and the distant town of Uyuni appears on the horizon as a smudge. We pass a welded iron cross where two roads converge, and Castro mentions offhandedly that an entire vanload of Japanese tourists were killed in a collision on the spot, an almost impossible occurrence to believe if I weren’t so familiar with the treacheries of Bolivian roads. After following one direction for a while, Castro jerks the wheel to the side, leaving the road we’ve been following, and then begins tacking back and forth across the salt like a yachtsman. I ask him what he’s up to and he replies, cryptically, “Sometimes in life it’s best not to follow the tracks.” After many minutes of zigzagging, he finally cuts toward land, having chosen his route through the treacherous edge of the Salar. The perimeter is ringed with wide stretches of axle-deep mud covered by a thin salt crust, like the world’s largest crème brûlée. It is easy to get lost or stuck on the salt. The Salar has no markers, no waypoints, no sense of exactly what lies beneath, just a vastness without context or direction. A dangerous place, it occurs to me, to steer a country, even metaphorically.
On my last day in Uyuni, I take a taxi out to the edge of town. As I jounce along the cratered roads, the buildings change from concrete block to crumbling mud brick before eroding away altogether on the town’s outskirts. The cracked, gray land spreads out wide and flat, edged by distant mountains separating the Bolivian Altiplano from the Chilean desert. At the place where the road ends, the rusting Corolla shudders to a stop, and I climb out. The driver tells me he won’t wait for me, takes three bolivianos for his trouble, and vanishes in a dust cloud back to town.
I have been dropped off to visit what passes in Uyuni for a tourist site, but there is no one else around except a half-starved dog and a lone woman in petticoats herding llamas. At twelve thousand feet the thin air smells like dung smoke. Dust devils swirl and plastic bags pulse like jellyfish until they are snagged in thorn brakes, shredded standards humming in the wind. The bushes are well-suited to the severe landscape, dun tangles of spikes guarding shocks of bright yellow flowers. Other bushes are so low to the ground I mistake them at first for patches of moss. They are like post-apocalyptic bonsai. The sky is dark on the distant horizon, front lit by strobes of lightning, but above me it is the same pale gray as the dust.
- Fabio Cuttica
- The train cemetery on the outskirts of Uyuni. Dozens of antique steam engines, abandoned when the mining industry collapsed in the forties, rust on the edge of the Salar. Plans for a museum have never materialized.
I walk a while along a raised railway bed, the rails themselves gone but the iron sleepers poking out of the dirt like dinosaur bones. This is Uyuni’s train cemetery, a monument to collapsed industry and failed ambition. Down along the sides of the tracks, scattered like dropped toys, appear the rusting hulks of ancient steam engines, dozens upon dozens of them, slowly oxidizing in the desert air as they have for over sixty years, since the ore they carried played out, the mining industry collapsed, and the railroads went bust. The trains’ huge wheels are half sunk into the earth, as if they had tried to back their way out of this dead end and gotten stuck. Brake shoes of crumbling asbestos lie in piles and boxcars are crushed like empty cigarette packets.
The scene is cyclopean, ozymandian. It is Yorick’s skull wrought in rusting iron, a memento mori of progress halted and technology foiled. The mummified body of a dog—I think it’s a dog—lies scattered on the ground, all bleached bones and fuzzy parchment, snarling through a rictus of fangs. Engines are splashed with weathered graffiti, slowly scoured off by the dust and layered into a palimpsest of notes from beyond. Se necesita un mecanico con experiencia is advertised on an irreparable wreck. Einstein’s equation for general relativity is painted along a rusted-out locomotive next to Newton’s law of universal gravitation, apparently some stoned physics major’s cosmic joke about an expanding universe, the trouble with perpetual motion, the irony of gravity. Thunder rumbles and a few fat raindrops darken the dust. I clamber into the cabs, peer in the black maws of fireboxes, mug like Buster Keaton at the frozen throttle. The line of dead engines stretches toward the horizon, all direction and no movement, pointing away toward the glimmering edge of the Salar de Uyuni, with all its infinite promise and uncertainty. I wonder if some long-distant tourist will poke like this around the rusting ribcage of Marcelo Castro’s lithium pilot plant. And what then will hold their charges and turn their wheels? As I look out from the ghost train, torn sheets of iron squeal in the wind, the sound almost like the whistle of a train pulling out. But the train is not moving, and a cold rain comes, and it’s a long walk back to town.