Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bolivia's Lithium Chapter

In the lat couple of months Bolivia has made headlines for a few different reasons. First, on a couple of different occasions, Evo Morales has made demands and declarations at the United-Nations in the name of Mother Earth. He has talked about a global referendum on climate change, about the climate debt that the industrialized countries owe to the Global South for decades of environmental destruction, and about establishing an international tribunal for crimes against Mother Earth. Second, Cochabamba, Bolivia in April hosted the first ever World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. To a degree the eyes of the world were fixed on Bolivia for a few days during the summit, although the mainstream media imposed a blackout on the gathering for obvious reasons. Good publicity for Bolivia is bad publicity for capitalism, and with popularity comes responsibility. As such, the Conference also had the effect of putting Bolivia in the spotlight regarding its own domestic environmental record and policies. And finally, in March and April broke the news that Bolivia holds massive untapped lithium deposits in its south-west, which also presents itself as somewhat of a double-edged sword for a couple of reasons.

Briefly the facts are as follows. Currently the two biggest lithium sites in the world are held by U.S., Chilean, and Canadian capital in Chile’s Atacama Salt Flats, and in Argentina. Bolivia’s share of lithium located in the Uyuni Salt Flats would trump both of these sites holding anywhere from 5.4 to 140 million tons, many different sources quote different figures, but what is widely agreed is that Uyuni possesses roughly around half or slightly more of the world’s known supply. The potential of Uyuni and the large-scale lithium extraction that will go along with it presents two problems for Bolivia.

Internationally it puts the Morales government in a difficult and potentially compromising position, with its recent ambitions and incursions of resolutions at the United-Nations, and its talk in defense of Mother Earth and against the capitalist system. There is no doubt that the Bolivian government and the Bolivian people are sincere about their earth loving intentions, but now they find themselves with a natural resource extraction juggling act of their own, and they must tread carefully. Of course this will be open season for the right-wing media if Bolivia makes any wrong moves, but all that has to be put aside, and their decisions must be based on the wishes and input of the local population, and on whether or not the operation will have negative or harmful affects on Mother Earth. Politically, the government must leave these major decisions mainly in the hands of the Bolivian people, as autonomy and decentralization has been one of the central priorities of the government in the last year and a half, it must now remain responsible to those commitments.

Of course Bolivia has no experience in extracting lithium, so it may need outside help. A French billionaire Vincent Bollore who owns a lithium battery plant and plans to make electric cars has offered technical help to the government with no strings attached, relatively. But Bolivia must be careful not to find itself in a vulnerable position in regards to foreign capital. It would probably best be served by obtaining technical assistance with zero concessions at the bargaining table, and to secure financial support either from Venezuela in the spirit of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), and/or from other friendly South American countries in the context of Latin American integration. In terms of public industry itself inside Bolivia, NACLA explains well; “According to Bolivia’s new constitution, the country’s natural resources belong to the Bolivian people and must be administered in their collective interest by the state. Instead of exporting raw lithium, the government wants it to be processed, refined, and industrialized, with battery plants and even car factories, on Bolivian soil. The goal is to capture the value added by industrialization for Bolivians.” The multinational corporations are experienced master swindlers, so if it is decided that extraction should proceed, the benefits must remain inside Bolivia and Latin America.

So is Bolivia’s lithium a gift or a curse? The short answer is that Bolivia’s new found resource can be a very good thing, not only for Bolivia but also for the world, if and only if the project is developed properly, responsibly, democratically, and sustainably. Yes, the lithium of Uyuni is a tremendous potential, but that doesn’t mean it all has to be extracted as fast as possible. And, in terms of doing it sustainably, the process must concern itself not only with the rate at which the lithium is extracted, but also with how much and how quickly water and energy are used in the process, to respect the earth, and also to ensure that local populations are not affected negatively.

What can Bolivia’s lithium do for humanity and Mother Earth? Uyuni holds enough to provide lithium for more than 4.8 billion electric cars, which would mean an enormous step forward in ending the petroleum dependency. Extracting natural resources that destroy the planet, and extracting natural resources that have the potential to save the planet are two different things. Mining lithium could provide the solution in sustainable technology to the single biggest problem humanity faces today, oil. Nothing positive comes out of drilling petroleum; extraction displaces communities, devastates the planet, and nature, and its ecosystems, and accidents and disasters are far more likely then we are led to believe. Furthermore, its manufactured result in the form of petro-chemicals, plastics, and fuel is the champion trinity of environmental degradation.

The recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is one of the greatest environmental catastrophes in the history of humanity, and the extension to offshore drilling is another product of the unquenchable greed of capitalism. I hope that this experience has shown us clearly that we don’t have enough time left, nor can we afford to gamble with petroleum any longer. We must not let them kill our Mother. Gasoline is a modern consumption addiction that must be stopped immediately; it is the central symptom of a system in crisis.

Perhaps it is time for the age of the electric car, again.

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