Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lithium in Bolivia

50 % of the world's known deposits of lithium carbonate are in a Bolivian salt flat called "Salar de Uyuni". Lithium carbonate is used to make the batteries in cell phones, laptop computers, and electric cars.

Writes the BBC:
Mitsubishi, which plans to release its own electric car soon, estimates that the demand for lithium will outstrip supply in less than 10 years unless new sources are found.

"The demand for lithium won't double, but increase by five times" according to Eichi Maeyama, Mitsubishi's general manager in La Paz.

South America was once an area completely within the United States' sphere of influence. The idea began with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, when the European powers were served notice that they would no longer call the shots in that area of the world. An infamous example of 'Yankee' influence was the CIA-backed overthrow of Chilean president Salvadore Allende's government, in the 1973.

The failed coup of elected Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, in 2002, provided a decisive break to this history. When he was removed from office and thrown in jail, the White House, through its spokesman, gave tacit support to the coup:
"We know that the action encouraged by the Chavez government provoked this crisis. According to the best information available, the Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations. The results of these events are now that President Chavez has resigned the presidency."
The New York Times cheered :
"Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator."
It later emerged that the Bush White House had previously met with leaders of the coup, including its short-lived president Pedro Carmona, now of Miami.

Street protests, and support within the Venezuelan military, led to Chavez's reinstatement as president a few days later. This left both the White House and The New York Times with egg on their faces. Meanwhile, Latin America gained confidence, and pushed forward for greater autonomy. When the government of Evo Morales was elected, the financial support of Chavez enabled Bolivia to re-national its natural resources, without Western approval, and despite the threats of loss of aid.

Bolivia has some of the world's largest deposits of natural gas, largely in its mestizo, or Spanish-origin areas. Little of the wealth has gone to the highland areas, where the Indian majority lives. What makes the lithium deposits so important is that they are in these highland areas. However, as the Middle East knows, possessing key natural resources can be a blessing and a curse. With the lithium carbonate comes the possibility of massive corruption and destabilization within Bolivia, as powerful corporations and countries fight for access.

Luis Alberto Echazu, Bolivia's minister of mining, says :
We want to send a message to the industrialized countries and their companies - we will not repeat the historical experience since the fifteenth century: raw materials exported for the industrialization of the West that has left us poor."