Salar de Uyuni — The most beautiful sunset in the world and the story of Lithium Mining in Bolivia
“Lithium is like a beautiful lady, very much sought and pursued, especially in Bolivia. There is data indicating Bolivia has the largest reserves of lithium in the world.” — Evo Morales
The Route: San Juan — Salar de Uyuni
There are many beautiful, breath taking places around the world. I have seen a few, and Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is somewhere at the top of the list. The size of Lebanon or two times Delaware, it’s the largest salt flat in the world, with an area of 10,500 square kilometers (4,080 sq mi). We visited just at the end of the rainy season when a big portion of the Salar was still covered with a thin layer of water, transforming the flats into a stunning reflection of the sky. It’s an incredible phenomenon, especially at sunset which reminded me of Rorschach psychological test. Natural beauty with psychological interpretations — quite a combo.
Lithium Mining in Bolivia
Underneath the surface of Salar de Uyuni are a few natural resources. The largest of which is Lithium, the raw material for the current and future energy source, otherwise known as White Gold. With the increased usage of lithium batteries in mobile phones and electric vehicles one wonders if Bolivia is on its way to become the next global energy supplier, like one of the rich Gulf states?
The short answer is: “So far it’s not.”
Nine years since the State started its own company to produce lithium, Bolivia is still the poorest country in South America.
Poor economic policies!
The government of President Evo Morales did not allow foreign companies to operate in Bolivia and extract the lithium until very recently. The Bolivian government wants to tap into the profits of not only the lithium’s extraction, but also the production of batteries. The explanation is in the numbers: a metric ton of lithium is valued at $9,000 (in 2018) but once it turns into batteries, jumps to $4 million. Unfortunately for Bolivia it takes world class engineering, patented technology and tools which it does not currently possess.
One way to make sense of Bolivia’s policies is to view it from an historical perspective: Bolivia’s natural resources were plundered by foreign colonial powers and international companies, and the fear that it’s rich resource will once again be taken without bringing any of its fortune back into Bolivia’s economy is a clear and present trauma.