El ministro de Hidrocarburos de Bolivia plantea una empresa mixta para la explotación del litio del Salar de Uyuni

El ministro de Hidrocarburos, Oscar Coca, plantea dividir la torta para formar una empresa mixta dedicada a la explotación del litio del Salar de Uyuni.

La mitad de las acciones sería para el Estado, el 35 por ciento para el “socio estratégico”, una empresa automovilística internacional, y el restante 15 por ciento para los bolivianos, que pueden comprar desde una acción.

La “propuesta de explotación e industrialización del litio boliviano”, fechada el 9 de marzo del 2009, fue enviada por Coca al ministro de Minería, Alberto Echazú, con un resume ejecutivo.

A esta participación de una transnacional en la explotación del litio se oponen los pobladores y la Federación Regional Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos del Altiplano Sur (Frutcas), puntualizando que “no es posible entregar a una empresa privada los mayores recursos estratégicos del mundo que tenemos en nuestro país, para sólo conformar una empresa mixta”.

El Ministro de Hidrocarburos presentó una propuesta para formar una Sociedad Anónima Mixta (SAM) entre el Estado, una “socia estratégica” y los bolivianos. La misiva señala que el objetivo “es mostrar una alternativa mejor y mucho más conveniente para los bolivianos en la explotación e industrialización del litio”.

A propósito de esa finalidad, Frutcas recuerda: “Hemos luchado contra la Lithium Corporation, Non Metallic y Quiborax, por lo tanto “por la mente de los que habitamos el sudoeste potosino jamás pasó esta idea” de entregar un recurso tan estratégico como el “oro gris” a una transnacional.

“La propuesta que se presenta en este documento es un aporte para mejorar las políticas económicas de nuestro país y generar mejores condiciones económicas”, señala la carta de Coca a Echazú.

Además señala que en el área de hidrocarburos, el Gobierno “ha optado de manera inteligente a conformar empresas mixtas para aprovechar sus riquezas”, por lo que recomienda la formación de una sociedad anónima mixta (SAM).

El resumen ejecutivo con la nota de Coca a su colega de Minería señala: “Solicitamos a su autoridad realizar las gestiones necesarias para la conformación de la empresa mixta”. Además, de señalar que será indispensable que “la nueva sociedad emita las acciones necesarias para que los bolivianos” puedan participar como socios.


Is lithium the new oil?

When looking at lithium imho it’s important to realize that lithium makes up only 3% of the cost of the battery. This means that the price could increase ten fold with out affecting the price of the batteries very much. When one looks at lithium prices today. The only way to compare is by looking at the price of oil when cars/ trucks first started to burn it, it was cheaper than good potting soil and that’s where we stand today with lithium. From whale oil lamps to coal oil lamps. We are standing at the crossroads once again.

The Battle Over Bolivia’s Lithium and the Future of Energy 

In the brine under a crust of blindingly white salt in Uyuni, Bolivia, lies nearly 50 percent of the world’s lithium reserves. Best known as a tourist attraction, the Salar is gaining fame as batteries made with this scarce element catch the attention of governments and auto-makers world wide. While on the campaign trail, President Obama promised that by 2015, there would be 1 million plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles on US roads, and, once in office, he allocated billions of economic stimulus package dollars toward battery technology and manufacturing.

In Bolivia, leftist president Evo Morales wants a state-run lithium refining and battery manufacturing industry to generate funds for health, education and poverty alleviation programs in South America’s most poverty stricken country.

As environmental and nationalist rhetoric promise big changes and bigger money for manufacturers and governments, questions still remain about the environmental effects lithium refining could have on Bolivia’s farming and tourist industry, and the viability of lithium batteries as an energy solution for the auto industry.

A Superlative Element

Lithium is the lightest known metal. At half the density of water, pure lithium has the disconcerting weight of a chunk of pine wood when held in the hand. You can cut it with a knife, but its white metallic luster tarnishes to an ashy charcoal almost immediately upon contact with oxygen. It floats in oil, burns with a bright crimson flame, and ignites in water. Modern society has used lithium in a variety of ways, ranging from mood stabilizing drugs, to the creation of the first human-made nuclear reaction. It is also used in glass, ceramics, light metal for aircrafts and, most importantly, batteries.

At an elemental level, lithium atom’s atomic radius is smaller, and in turn metallic lithium is more electro-negative, and boils at a lower temperature than any other metal. All these qualities make lithium ion batteries (LiIon) weigh less, take up less space, and last longer than alkaline batteries. Currently, LiIon batteries are making the more than 2 billion cell phones in the world light and small enough to slip in the pockets of their users. In addition, your computers, mp3 players and power tools are most likely powering up with a little bit of South American or Tibetan reserves. At the moment, nickel batteries are still less expensive than LiIon models, but if lithium supplies increase, then the cost could go down.

Currently the largest lithium reserves and producers are in Chile, Argentina and Tibet. Most refineries are dedicated solely to lithium, and discard other minerals. Since 2004, world production of lithium, especially in Chile, has skyrocketed. Argentina also has aggressive plans to expand existing plants and build new ones. Yearly production of lithium carbonate, the most easily obtained form, varies from 16 to 25 tons per year, and currently covers demand.

"Our grandparents lived from the salt. Now it’s our turn"

The silver and tin mining city of Potosí, Bolivia – in the 1600’s richer and larger than Paris – is now the capital of the poorest province in the poorest country in South America. 150 miles of dirt roads to the west, distant islands and volcanoes float over the blindingly white plain of the salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. The biggest in the world, the Salar is, according to scientists, the remains of a vast inland sea, or according to legend, the dried traces of breast milk and tears of a disconsolate goddess searching for her lost child. The light refracted by the crystallized salt makes it the last place on earth visible to the naked eye from space.

The Salar has been a resource for the people of the Land of the Lípez, as it is known, since time immemorial. Juan Colque works out of his house in the town of Colchani, selling salt sculptures of llamas, bowls, dice games and other shapes to the more than 60 thousand tourists who pass by on their way to see the salt flats every year. Other residents rake the salt into piles to dry, and then shovel it into trucks to be processed in the valleys. In this "salt town" on the banks of the Salar, most houses and buildings are made of bricks of the crystallized mineral. "I’ve worked as a tour guide, I know the Salar like my hand," says Colque, "I’ll work in lithium, too, if that starts. You have to do anything you can. People live day to day here." 

The quiet city of Uyuni is the biggest metropolis for hours. In the winter, high season for tourists, the glare of the sun bakes the plains until night fall, when frigid winds take over. In the summer, rains swell rivers that tear up the dirt roads and rickety train tracks connecting Uyuni with the rest of the country. In the mayor’s office, advisor Luis Ramirez Ríos says that he wants lithium profits to "go toward improving the quality of life in this area abandoned by the state and national government."

Currently, the largest industry in the area is tourism. The Uyuni tourist information office is in the base of a miniature Big Ben clock in the center of town. There, Omar Perez says that tourism is currently growing 14.95 % each year, and there are currently 74 tour operators. Perez acknowledges the possible benefits of lithium exploitation, but is wary of grandiose promises. "We, the people of Uyuni, are completely in agreement that it is economically very important. They say that all the jobs and materials will benefit people here," he says, and shrugs "but ask anyone in the street and they are going to say ‘nothing’s going on with Lithium.’"

Out on the edge of town, a sign on the gate of the FRUTCAS (Southern High Plains Regional Federation of Workers and Peasants) office reads "No Lithium Vacancies Left," but local men wait hopefully in the courtyard for work. Executive Secretary Francisco Quisbert has long seen lithium as a solution to lift his union members out of poverty, but only if it is run "100% by the state and the majority of the profits stay in the region, because if a transnational company comes, they’ll take all of the profits, and on top of taking everything, they don’t’ reinvest in the country." A decade ago, Quisbert helped organize successful protests against the government’s plans to sell the reserves to The American Lithium Corporation. In 2005, former coca leader Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia with a vast mandate to nationalize the extraction of natural resources and create a new constitution with the participation of social movements. One of Morales’ first acts as president was a highly theatrical occupation of a gas refinery, which is now partially nationalized.

In addition, creating a state run and owned lithium refinery is an act of "scientific decolonization" to Chemist and Director of Universities Pedro Crespo Avizuri, who has studied the Salar and its minerals since the 1980’s.

The Eyes of Capitalism

Former Mining Minister Mariobo Moreno says that the government must resist globalizing "instruments like transnational corporations and economic and international political pressure."

"The fact that the New York Times published that half of the lithium in the world is in Bolivia doesn’t raise any eyebrows in the country because it’s nothing new," writes Moreno, "but in the rest of the world, it puts all the eyes of capitalism on Bolivia."

And indeed they are. International press in the past year reacted to Morales’ assertions that lithium refining and battery production will be a state-run industry with ‘lithocracy’-phobic headlines. Simon Romero of the New York Times ("Bolivia: The Saudi Arabia of Lithium?" and "Nationalism Threatens Bolivian Lithium Supplies") frets that that sections of the new constitution "could give Indians control over the natural resources in their territory, strengthening their ability to win concessions from the authorities and private companies, or even block mining projects." However, a report prepared by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) points out that mineral-rich and infrastructure-poor Bolivia could certainly learn much about managing valuable resources from the experience of OPEC countries.

Piloting the Future of Bolivia

In a highly publicized ceremony, Morales laid a cornerstone for a lithium refinery pilot plant at the delta of the Rio Grande de Lípez in May, 2008. To Marcelo Castro, the director of construction of a pilot lithium refinery, President Morales is "not just an indigenous president, but a recuperation of our morals."

According to the Bolivian research organization CEDIB, the official plan for the process is to extract the brine from a southeastern area of the Salar and transport it through a duct to solid ground. 14,000 square meters of solar evaporation pools will allow the adequate concentration of the commercial salts of the brine. When running, the pilot plant will employ 55 workers and produce some 40 tons of lithium carbonate per month. The official date given for the opening of the plant is January of 2010.

The report mentions the productions of other minerals in the brine, including potassium carbonate, potassium sulfate, boric acid and magnesium chloride. However, when I ask him about the production capacity of the plant, Castro is very insistent that there are many hurdles to overcome just in order to be able to begin studying the process of extraction itself, let alone begin exporting. But Castro sees long-term future benefits for Bolivia in the project.

Such a long-term perspective is needed, too, because neither the pilot plant, nor the larger industrial plant projected to follow, address the issue of processing the lithium carbonate into the metallic lithium needed for batteries. Both projects could still allow for a cheap exportation of lithium carbonate to international corporations who could process and sell lithium for a large profit to themselves, which many would like to do. Earlier this spring Morales declared that Bolivia will not sell crude lithium carbonate for international battery manufacturers to reap the benefit from, and that LiIon batteries and even cars should be manufactured in Bolivia. French company Bollore didn’t balk at the suggestion, but this news doesn’t necessarily mean action. Jindal of India has been working on plans to extract iron in Bolivia for several years, and the process is still bogged down in paperwork.

A Nature Crazier than Fiction

In addition, a closer look at the nature of Lithium in Uyuni reveals other challenges before Castro and hopeful battery manufacturers.

In fact, according to Meridian Institute Research Consultants, several factors are working against the Salar de Uyuni on its quest to become the world’s largest manufacturer. Uyuni’s lithium epicenter is not only lower in quality that the current large producer in the Atacama, but the lithium reserves are also less concentrated, which means that more of the Salar will have to be mined. Moreover, the presence of magnesium in the brine complicates the refining process. Another complicating factor is that the evaporation rate in Uyuni is only 40% of the Atacama, which means refining will take more time, all factors that will make lithium extraction in Uyuni a much more difficult and lengthy process.

This means that the governments’ "intention to produce 1,000 tons of Lithium per month by from 2013," one and a half times the current production of the Salar de Atacama, which is the world’s largest Lithium producer, are "highly unlikely" due to the high concentrations of magnesium and the lower evaporation rate.

A Closed Circuit?

For the last 500 years, mining has caused irreversible environmental damage to Bolivian land and communities. In Uyuni, when I ask Francisco Quisbert about his concerns about the environmental ramifications of lithium exploitation, he has an immediate point of reference: past fights against water exportation and the San Cristobal mine, now Sumitomo. He bemoans the fact that peasants and activists were able to stop a plan to export the subterranean water to Chile at the rate of 6,000 liters per second, but have been unable to address the nearby mines usage of subterranean water at the rate of 40,000 cubic meters of water per day, which has dried several watersheds formerly used by peasants. However, Quisbert is much more interested in potential gains from lithium production than the potential costs. 

Elizabeth Lopez of the Bolivian Environmental Defense League (FOBOMADE) is concerned by the lack of available water use and impact studies. She worries that exploitation of the Salar could cause lasting damages, but understands why local farmers are excited by the prospects. "When the people rejected LITHCOA and the water exportation, it was such a victory that they now feel that it is their right to exploit the Lithium reserves." The new government has also complicated the process. "It’s one thing when a foreign corporation comes, you can conduct a study, protest, complain to the government, but when the government itself is in charge, a government like this, which professes to have the greater good in mind, it’s a lot more complicated. Who do we complain to?"

Several concerns about the potential impacts of a plant have yet to be addressed by the government. While official sources call the process a "closed circuit," involving, says Marco Castro, taking the lithium out of the brine and "putting everything else back in," modern mining is rarely that simple, and Uyuni’s magnesium-rich lithium will require more refining than in other deposits. There is also the question of what effect disturbing or covering large areas of the Salar could have on local wildlife and climactic patterns. If, indeed, removing the lithium itself is a benign process, the government will need to pay close attention to processing plants. Plants at other reserves produce sulfur dioxide, which is produces potentially life-threatening effects after long periods of exposure.

The Emperors’ Battery-Powered Clothes

In the meantime, technological advances have promised to make LiIon batteries charge in seconds, and, on March 19, Obama took a photo-op at a Southern California electric-vehicle test facility to announce that $2 billion Department of Energy competitive grant program to motivate hybrid and electric car part and battery manufacturing in the US. "Show us that your idea or your company is best-suited to meet America’s challenges, and we will give you a chance to prove it," he said.

However, like the ‘green energy’ promised by agrofuels, which actually result in a net energy loss, lithium ‘powered’ cars are another emperor’s new clothes of sustainable energy. Another key point that the buzz about lithium batteries doesn’t address is that LiIon batteries can only store energy; they cannot create it. So the question of where the great quantity of energy to power these electric cars and machines will come from remains. Unless the capture of wind, water and solar energy make leaps, future batteries made from "the Saudi Arabia of Lithium" will still rely on the failing energy policies of today. 


Lithium: Facts from the Santiago conference

* R. Keith Evans

A conference entitled “Lithium Supply and Markets” organized by Industrial Minerals magazine was held in Santiago, Chile, in January this year. It was attended by 150 geologists, mining engineers, chemical engineers, producers, would-be producers, battery experts and consumers.

I had the pleasure of making the first presentation concerning reserves and resources estimating in situ tonnages of 30.0 million tonnes Li — about 160.0 million tonnes of carbonate-the principal feed chemical for the chemicals used in lithium-ion batteries. My estimate was an update of a National Research Council report produced in the mid 1970s that included more recent discoveries using the tonnages estimated by the companies involved in evaluating the targets.

As with the NRC report a fairly wide definition of reserves and resources was adopted along the lines of the statement made by Donella Meadows in 1972: “Reserve is a concept related to the amount of material that has been discovered or inferred to exist and that can be used given reasonable assumptions about technology and price.”

Definitions used by the USGS are tighter than this, hence lower tonnage estimates from that source. When the NRC team was chosen, they were asked to produce a report on resources which in the opinion of the team stood a reasonable chance of being developed should a major demand develop. At the time the concern was in respect of lithium availability for fusion reactors. The tonnage estimated by the panel which included one current and one former USGS employee, was considerably higher than the official estimate at that time.

Other estimates quoted in Santiago were, from Chemetall and FMC for 28.0 million tonnes Li and 35.7 million tonnes Li from SQM. In my address I also quoted an estimate by Laksic and Tilton (University of Chile and Colorado School of Mines respectively) of 35.0 million tonnes.

In a summary of the conference proceedings by the Chairman, Gerry Clark, he wrote “What speakers in the Santiago event demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt is that lithium resources are large enough to cover any rationally conceivable demand.”

Before leaving the subject of resources and reserves, I would like to make the comment that moving from one category to the other is an expensive exercise. As an example, the hectorite deposit on the Nevada/Oregon border includes 5 lenses. When drilled years ago Chevron, the former owners, came up with a tentative estimate of 2.3 million tonnes Li.

As part of its feasibility study, Western Mining has redrilled one of the lenses in a tight pattern to indicate a lithium tonnage of 162,000 tonnes — within 10% of the Chevron figure for that lens. Do they feel any compulsion to undertake detailed drilling at the other lenses? As they are a relatively small company I doubt they can justify the expense so the other 2 million tonnes will remain a resource. The drilled lens contains 800,000 tonnes of carbonate — more than sufficient for a lengthy period.

In Santiago, the issue of current chemical production capacity was discussed, which is estimated at 115,000 tpa of lithium carbonate equivalents compared with current demand of approximately 95,000 tpa.

Of greatest interest were projections of future demand where the numbers vary greatly because of the varying assumptions regarding total vehicle numbers, the percentage penetration of the total market, the percentage that are lithium-ion powered and the vehicle type.

All three producers used the same figure of 0.6 kg carbonate per 1kW/h of battery capacity with the type, battery capacity and carbonate demand tabulated below.

Vehicle type Battery capacity LCE demand
Mild HEV 2 KW/H 1.2
PHEV 12 7.2
EV 25 15

SQM in its estimate for 2020 looked at two scenarios assuming 9% and 20% electric vehicles in the fleet, with 60% and 80% being powered with Li-ion. The annual carbonate demand ranged from 20,000 to 30,000 tonnes in the conservative case and 55,000 to 65,000 tonnes in the optimistic case.

Unlike others making estimates, SQM also looked at 2030 with 15% and 25% electric vehicles in the fleet and 75% and 90% being Li-ion powered, resulting in a demand of 65,000 to 75,000 in the conservative case and 135,000 to 145,000 in the optimistic case.

Chemetall also tabulated a range of scenarios with 2020 demand for vehicles from a low of 5,000 to a high of 60,500 tonnes of carbonate demand.

FMC estimated the market penetration of HEV’s at 20-30%, PHEV’s at 2-5% and EV’s at 1-3% in 2020 resulting in a carbonate demand of 70,000 tpa.

TRU Group presented a study made on behalf of Mitsubishi Corporation. They estimated the production of battery equipped cars at approximately 5 million/year by 2020. They also estimated that technical issues will be resolved for HEV’s by 2011, for PHEV’s by 2014 and for EV’s by 2016.

Future Production
Current capacity for chemical production approximates to 115,000 tpa lithium carbonate equivalents. At the conference, Chemetall announced that it would stage expansions in response to market demand which could more than double capacity (to 50,000 and 15,000 tpa carbonate and hydroxide respectively) by 2020 and FMC stated that at current production rates they had reserves to last for 70 years.

SQM pumps sufficient brine to recover approximately 800,000 tpa of potash (potassium chloride and potassium sulfate) together with a modest tonnage of boric acid. From this feed, they have the lithium capacity to produce 40,000 tpa carbonate but the lithium in the brine greatly exceeds this and the excess is returned to the salar. The expansion potential is large. The company claims that the returned brine contains in excess of 200,000 tpa carbonate.

The Chinese plan to expand brine based capacity to 85,000 tonnes by 2010 but it is known that they are having serious problems with the high magnesium/lithium ratios in two of the brine sources.

In addition to current operations, there are several projects in the pipeline. Three pegmatite-based operations are being evaluated, one each in Australia (Galaxy Resources), Canada (Canadian Lithium) and one in Finland (Keliber Resources) with combined in situ reserves of 124,000 tonnes Li.

In Argentina the Salar de Rincon project is targeted to produce 17,000 tpa carbonate and the Salar de Olaroz, further north, is being evaluated by Orocobre.

In Bolivia, the Salar de Uyuni, is receiving massive attention by the press with claims that “it is the Saudi Arabia of lithium” also “it has nearly 50% of the world’s reserves” and “it is the most beautiful resource on the planet”. It is undoubtedly large — Ballivian and Risacher estimated 5.5 million tonnes Li but are only one eigths of the world’s resources. However, it has problems with a low lithium concentration and a high Mg/Li ratio which will complicate and increase the cost of processing. The richest part of the reserve is in an area where the aquifer is very thin and the whole salar floods seasonally — diluting grade and complicating the construction of the very large area of solar evaporation ponds that will be required.

Mention has been made previously of Western Lithium’s hectorite deposits in the western United States. The resource contains in excess of 2.0 million tonnes Li. Costs are not known yet and this also applies to Simbol Mining’s proposal to recover lithium from the rich geothermal brines in the Salton Sea area of Southern California.

RTZ’s jadarite deposit in Serbia appears to be extremely attractive. This unique mineral occurs in 3 stacked layers. Reserves were disclosed for one of them in Santiago — 0.95 million tonnes Li. If mined out over a period of 20 years it would produce 60,000 tpa carbonate with the co-production of 300,000 tpa boric acid. The geological evidence suggests that this deposit could contain double the currently stated reserves.

Cost Considerations
Claims have been made that if (ever) the cheap brine sources became exhausted or that demand grows to such an extent that the current producers cannot meet demand, citing pegmatite costs as an example, costs and prices would increase considerably.

In fact, a high percentage of current Chinese production is from spodumene and two years ago SQM estimated production costs at between $1.80 to $2.20/lb. A former North Carolina producer recently gave a ball-park estimate of $2.50-$3.00/lb for production from the former operations there.

In Santiago, Chemetall did the math as far as batteries are concerned. Assuming a battery cost of 500 euros per kW/h and a carbonate cost of 6 euros per kilo, the carbonate cost is less than 1% of the total. Clearly, higher costs are palatable in this application.

Finally, in situ resources total approximately 30.0 million tonnes and a recovery of 50% seems probable. As a result of an increase in exploration activity more resources will be discovered and partly explored pegmatites will be drilled at depth and along unexplored strike. An example is the Tallison pegmatite in Western Australia where increased reserves were announced in Santiago — from 223,000 tonnes Li in my estimate to 1.5 million tonnes.

There are a large number of additional Salares in the Andean altiplano now receiving the attention of geologists and if recovery from hectorites proves to be viable there are numerous other occurrences reported upon by the USGS.

Returning to the demand side, each million tonnes of recovered elemental lithium or 5.6 billion kilos of carbonate will be sufficient for 560 million vehicles requiring a 10 kW/h battery. Most batteries will require much less.

Keith Evans, a geologist by profession, first became involved in the lithium business in the early 1970s when he was asked to evaluate the future potential of Bikita Minerals. Subsequently, he jointed Lithium Corporation and later joined Amax Exploration. On behalf of Amax and a Chilean partner he led the negotiations with the Chilean Government to evaluate and later develop the brine resources of part of the Salar de Atacama. After retirement from Amax he has continued to consult on a number of industrial minerals and has written extensively on the subject of lithium reserves.


Lithium can charge Bolivian economy

Lithium batteries are used in everything from cell phones to electric cars. Half of the world’s reserves of the scarce metal can be found in Bolivia, and the country hopes to benefit from its popular resource.

Tess Vigeland: In all likelihood you own something that runs on lithium batteries. It might be a cell phone or a laptop. The world’s lightest material is also in demand for electric car batteries as automakers go green. But the metal is scarce. About half the world’s reserves are in the small South American nation of Bolivia. As Annie Murphy reports, Bolivia plans to make the best of that.

ANNIE MURPHY: Salar de Uyuni in Southwestern Bolivia is best known as the planet’s largest salt flat. Some 400,000 square miles, 10 billion tons of salt and thousands of tourists who come each year to wonder at this vast, otherworldly terrain.

It’s one enormous flat expanse of white nothingness blending into this baby blue sky. You see salt everywhere, you can even hear it crackling under my feet.

About 25,000 tons of salt are extracted every year. But it’s worth little. And for generations, locals like Calixto Condori, who harvests salt here by hand, have been locked in poverty.

CALIXTO CONDORI: This is tough work, and salt doesn’t have a high price like minerals. We just don’t earn enough.

But that could soon change. Beneath the Salar de Uyuni sit the world’s largest reserves of lithium. International investors and automakers like Japan’s Mitsubishi corporation want a piece of it. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales is determined the lithium won’t just enrich foreign interests or the nation’s European-descended elite. He says ordinary Bolivians must benefit, and he wants the state to have a major stake in lithium extraction.

To start, they need to get to the lithium. Engineer Marcelo Castro is overseeing the construction of Bolivia’s first and only lithium plant. Today, the site is full of workers bundled up against the cold wind and blinding sun. According to Castro, 98 percent of them are from nearby indigenous communities.

MARCELO CASTRO: The flow of natural resources out of Bolivia left us poor, backwards, underdeveloped, and dependent. Only the success of this plant can guarantee that profits will be reinvested in our country. If not, we’ll end up the same as before.

But some analysts, like economist Juan Carlos Zuleta, say Bolivia just doesn’t have the capital, expertise or infrastructure to become the world’s leading lithium ore supplier.

JUAN CARLOS ZULETA: There has to be some private investment. Not only because we are a poor country, and we don’t have enough financial resources, but more important is that we don’t have the technology. It is an error to think that we Bolivians by ourselves are going to be able to go ahead with this important project.

Evo Morales is not ruling out foreign partners, but he’s demanding a high price if they want some of the huge profits that lithium should bring. That’s giving hope to Bolivians like salt harvester Calixto Condori.

CALIXTO CONDORI: Multinational businesses are usually the only ones to profit in Bolivia. But maybe with lithium my children and grandchildren will finally get to reap the benefits.