Lithium - the grey silver of Bolivia

The Salar de Uyuni in south west Bolivia is Latin America’s largest salt flat. Here, under the salty surface crust is a brine that holds over half the world’s lithium resources.
The lightest of the metal elements, lithium is an ideal component for lightweight batteries. With the coming of the electric car era, Bolivia is looking at ways to commercialise it’s precious and expansive resource. After a failed attempt to find an agreement with multinational corporations, Bolivia’s current President, Evo Morales, has promised to commercialise the Salar’s lithium through it’s own devices. The first step that Morales has taken has been to set up a pilot plant for the extraction and processing of lithium. This moment, while crucial to the prospects of successful commercialization, is a minor element of a large dream which Morales has to produce batteries, and eventually cars. My documentation of the story around lithium in the Salar has been about understanding the socio-political context of the pilot plant and whether Morales’ state based approach will result in tangibly more benefit to the people of the Salar than a more typical company based model.

During my work, I found that while the commercialization process moves at almost a snail’s pace due to a lack of skill, there is a different vibration in the air. I sensed a dedication and a hope in the individuals working at the plant and communities surrounding the Salar – rather than skepticism at Morales’ objective. It remains to be seen whether Morales can actually make an economic difference to the people of Bolivia, but to date, at least he has brought them little hope.