The changing landscape of Bolivia’s salt flats

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The Bolivian government plans to set up a state lithium mining company, part of President Evo Morales’ bid to industrialize the Andean country’s commodities-dependent economy.

A bill due for debate authorizes the government to form Empresa Pública Nacional Estratégica de Recursos Evaporíticos, which would replace state mining company Comibol’s lithium division known as GNRE, Comibol said in a statement on its website.

The new company will have the power to sign JV contracts with local and international private companies to produce lithium batteries, lithium carbonate, chloride, sulfates and hydroxide, in addition to potassium chloride, sulfate and nitrates, Comibol said.

Bolivia has been trying to build US$900mn lithium project Salar de Uyuni for decades, but to date has constructed just a pilot plant, which in September sold 15t of lithium carbonate to China at US$9,200/t, Comibol said.

The project is designed to produce 50,000t/y of lithium by late 2018.

Comibol has announced plans to invest 120mn bolivianos (US$17mn) in exploration this year, part of a government drive to invest US$1.97bn in the mining and metallurgical industries by 2020.

In other news, a state of emergency was declared in Huanuni – home to Comibol tin-mining concessions – after informal miners raided the properties and stole ore, local newspaper La Razón reported.

Comibol has been beset by problems over the past year, closing its Karachipampa silver-lead smelter and El Mutún iron ore mine because of technical problems and low metals prices.

In addition, Swiss trader Glencore last year also filed for arbitration against the Bolivian government for the expropriation of mining assets from 2007-12.

Private investment has plummeted in Bolivia since Morales, who lost a bid to extend his mandate last year, seized mining operations from companies including Jindal Steel, Glencore and South American Silver since first taking office in 2006.

Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat.

For generations, local salt gatherers – or “saleros” – have extracted salt from the Bolivian flat, scooping the raw mineral into mounds to let it dry before it is transported to processing plants and turned into table salt.

But today, the profession is on the brink of extinction as Bolivia is steadily modernising and new sources of income are taking over.

About half of the world’s reserves of lithium are buried beneath the Salar.

The lightest metal on the periodical table is used in batteries for mobile phones, laptops and electric cars.

As the demand for lithium-ion batteries continues to grow, commentators have asked if Bolivia could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium”.

President Evo Morales has said the value of lithium is the “hope of humanity”.

The discovery of lithium has caused a societal split in Bolivia, particularly in the communities bordering the Salar.

As the mining operation grows in size, the new infrastructure it comes with – including electrical lines, water pipelines and paved roads – are transforming the region, aiding other industries including tourism.

While there are many people in the area who long for a more modern lifestyle, some – like the saleros – cannot easily part with their old profession and their connection to the land. For them, it remains to be seen if tradition can co-exist with modernisation.

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