Lithium: The Gift of Pachamama

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"Evo Morales has a plan for Bolivia's lithium."

In the south-western province of Nor Lipez in Bolivia lies the world's largest deposit of lithium. In recent years, lithium's commercial value has risen astronomically, and demand has grown to the point where it is now profitable to exploit the mineral even when it is found in a place as remote as this.

Today, the potential exploitation of Bolivian lithium exposes contradictions within Bolivia's government, and the possibility of social conflict, as multilayered as the salt lake itself. The Bolivian revolution of 1952 nationalized the mines, creating among the Bolivian people the collective belief that they were now the owners of huge potential wealth that would never again be exploited by "foreign interests."

On the one hand, President Evo Morales decreed in 2008 that the state would take full control of the exploitation of lithium. A new arm of the Bolivian Mining Corporation was set up with the aim of constructing a plant for the mineral's exploitation.

On the other hand, since 2009 the Bolivian government has begun negotiations with foreign companies with a view to signing contracts for its industrial production.

Through such partnerships, Morales hopes to further fund a number of social welfare projects through the so-called conditional transfer of resources—small amounts of money are given to families, so long as certain conditions are met (for instance, that children are sent to school). This is central to the government's social strategy.

However, the indigenous population of Bolivia's western areas appear to disagree with the policy. For many Bolivians, the most important thing is that local communities decide on the uses of resources in their own territory.

Not only do the Uyuni salt flats sit above multiple layers of strategic minerals, they also raise questions of how to use them—to which there are multiple answers.

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