Carmakers everywhere are aiming to decrease their dependence on foreign oil in the race to build the next generation of hybrids or electric cars. The only problem is that nearly half of the world’s lithium, the mineral needed to power the vehicles, is found in Bolivia. And Bolivia is in no hurry to share their resource with the Japanese, European and U.S. corporations that have been circling like hawks.
The New York Times reports, Bolivian President Evo Morales, who has already nationalized the country’s oil and natural gas industries, is focused on keeping foreigners at arm’s length. At the same time, indigenous groups in the remote salt desert where the mineral lies are pushing for a share in the eventual bounty, which is highly possible thanks to the recently passed referendum to the constitution empowering the indigenous population.
“We know that Bolivia can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” said Francisco Quisbert, 64, the leader of Frutcas, a group of salt gatherers and quinoa farmers on the edge of Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. “We are poor, but we are not stupid peasants. The lithium may be Bolivia’s, but it is also our property.”
The United States Geological Survey says 5.4 million tons of lithium could potentially be extracted in Bolivia, compared with 3 million in Chile, 1.1 million in China and just 410,000 in the United States. Independent geologists estimate that Bolivia might have even more lithium at Uyuni and its other salt deserts, though high altitudes and the quality of the reserves could make access to the mineral difficult.