Bolivia’s lithium boom balancing act

From ToxicLeaks

Lithium background and uses[edit | edit source]

A July 2017 World Bank report outlines the critical use of minerals and metals in achieving global climate goals and reduced carbon emissions, but warns of environmental degradation that’s fueled by rapid and poorly regulated growth – especially in the use of lithium. Demand growth for the powdery white metal is forecast at 1000 percent through 2050 under aggressive 2-degree climate goals meant to curtail carbon emissions, largely because of batteries needed in the transportation and renewable energies sectors; batteries powering up mobile devices and cars currently account for 39 percent of demand. At the same time, lithium recycling rates remain low although there is growing opportunity in recycling.

Bolivia’s stake in lithium[edit | edit source]

The industry analysts’ scenario of demand exceeding supply, with the associated rise in commodity price, may create economic opportunity for Bolivia. The impoverished Andean nation in South America holds an estimated 9 million metric tons, about 19 percent of the world’s identified lithium resources, according to 2017 revisions of widely accepted United States Geological Survey (USGS) numbers.

Bolivia has yet to achieve the production levels of Argentina or China, with the latter investing heavily in Bolivia’s lithium mining capacities – including a Chinese-built lithium battery factory in Potosi, a project of Shandong Gelon LIB Group. Given China’s own catastrophic record on rare-earth mineral mining at Lake Baotou and elsewhere, there is cause for Bolivia’s environmental activists to be alarmed. Yet the nation is heavily invested in extractive industries as part of its economic development, and that vision is as deeply rooted in Bolivia’s economic plans as it is the nation’s cultural history and political philosophy.

YLB and the Evo Morales vision for Bolivia[edit | edit source]

President Evo Morales has been in power since elected in 2005, and recently announced he will seek a fourth term despite Bolivia’s constitutional limits on his office. As the first Aymara indigenous leader, the leftist Morales and his Movement for Socialism party long denounced neocolonialism; he espouses the harnessing of Bolivia’s natural resources for the benefit of its own people and industries. On July 22, 2017, social media messages from Morales advocated Bolivia’s “total independence” from World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Western intervention motivated by resource acquisition.

Comibol is Bolivia’s nationalized mining corporation. In April 2017, the company’s former lithium division known as GNRE was replaced by Yacimientos del Litio Bolivianos (YLB), a new company that reflects the Morales vision. It holds 100 percent stake in Bolivia’s lithium production and commercial application, and is meant to accelerate the slow development of Bolivia’s lithium assets and industry.

Morales views the historical moment as the liberation of peoples from the dying days of failed global capitalism, and Morales has for a decade insisted on global partners not owners. Bolivia wants to make the cars and batteries, not just export the raw materials, despite the fact that the policies of LaPaz make it difficult to attract foreign investors at the same time that Bolivia still depends on them. In August 2016, Glencore joined those filing legal claims over Bolivia’s asset seizures and policies. Analysts stress that Bolivia’s new lithium operations – and the environmental threats – must be viewed in this context.

Chinese interest, as well as that of Germans, Swiss, Canadians and others, is reflected in 21st century demand. It’s also reflected in the Salar de Uyuni flats, a vast, shimmering 10,582-square kilometer land mirror near Potosi that is the largest in the world. It is here that mining impacts the salt flat ecosystem.

Environmental impacts of lithium mining[edit | edit source]

Environmental concerns in the Salar de Uyuni arise from several causes. First is because lithium is mined from the brine that lies beneath the Bolivian salt flats. It’s hard to reach, requiring a disruptive process in which vast swaths of the flats are first excavated with heavy machinery, and then pumps are installed to remove the brine and hold it in large surface-level retention ponds. After months of evaporation there, it is refined into lithium carbonate suitable for producing batteries at the Planta Llipi on-site pilot plant.

The endless expanse of salt flat, once a major attraction for ecologists and tourists, is now disrupted by mountains of sludge. Toxic solvents are used in the mining process, including limes and sulfates with poorly studied consequences. Lithium mining also impacts the saleros, generations of native Bolivians who work as salt miners and live in villages along the rim of the Salar de Uyuni. The threat to their livelihood isn’t the only impact to indigenous peoples, because despite the Morales philosophy of reclaiming Bolivia’s resources from its colonial legacy, lithium mining and manufacturing have the same potential to widen the inequality gap between elites who benefit from it and Bolivians who never will.

Indigenous Bolivians already face disproportionately high impacts because of climate change, according to the international Oxfam NGO. Lidema, the leading Bolivian environmental advocacy group, has long warned against the nation’s weak environmental management policy and lack of regulatory vigor. Linda Farthing, co-author of a 2014 book on “Evo’s Bolivia,” has noted the development dilemma La Paz faces in a nation with an extensive legacy of ecological degradation dating back to colonial-era extraction.

A May 2017 study adds to the growing body of knowledge on how metal from Bolivian mines, in this case silver, already impacts crops and public health; activists in the Salar de Uyuni are concerned for its flora and fauna too, even if they’re not agricultural. And in LaPaz, where a warming earth is drying up glaciers that provided water, the military was delivering water in 113 trucks to thousands of citizens surviving on just a third of their normal water use during the 2017 drought. To many Bolivians, the water shortage is yet another consequence of the mining sector on which economic development depends.

A recent investigation even found Bolivian authorities selling truckloads of water earmarked for citizens in Potosi to mining firms instead, giving sustainability leaders even more concern for the environment. Those concerns are shared by the authors of the July 2017 World Bank report, who warn that in the global rush to a greener future – one in which Bolivia’s lithium is a key ingredient – the increase in mineral extraction without careful management may actually “bely the efforts and policies” of building a low-carbon future. If the lithium solutions to the social and environmental challenges presented by climate change lie in more extraction, Bolivia and other nations need to balance their economic goals with sustainable development. The Salar de Uyuni may one day prove to be a case study in how Morales was able to achieve that, but not without ensuring that the solutions don’t cause new catastrophes.