Bolivia before the election: White gold from Lake Uyuni

Bolivia before the election: White gold from Lake Uyuni

Bolivia has the largest known lithium deposits. Germany wants to get involved in the mining of this alkali metal, which is important for electronic car batteries. Parliamentary and presidential elections should be the direction.

Author: Matthias Ebert, ARD Studio Rio de Janeiro

As Panfilo Huayllas passes through his village of Rio Grande, trucks line the streets. There are dozens of them that are currently unused. It was bought by the local indigenous mayor Panfilo for the mining cooperative of the village.

Trucks were to carry tons of lithium these days. However, the industrial extraction of raw materials with German participation is currently at a standstill in Rio Grande. “We have no idea when it will start,” Panfilo complains.

Plant for the raw material of the future

Recently, it looked very different. In 2018, the Minister of Economy Peter Altmaier encouraged Germany when the Federal Republic won a contract to mine lithium in Bolivia. “For the first time, Germany has direct access to the raw material of the future,” it said at the time.

The Acisa Joint Undertaking was launched. ACI from Baden-Württemberg and the Bolivian state under then-leftist President Evo Morales were involved.

The agreement was a big surprise after all companies from China and Tesla from the USA had long ago overseen supplies in Bolivia. Lithium is considered an important raw material for electromobility.

Treasure in the salt lake

The largest lithium tank in the world is located in the Uyuni salt lake at 3,600 meters above sea level in the Andes. It is estimated at 21 million tons. Bolivia would flood the raw materials the country urgently needs to fight poverty, repair roads and build schools.

Together with the Bolivians, the Germans wanted to produce lithium hydroxide on a large scale for the next 70 years. They also promised their Andean partners that they would set up battery production and related knowledge transfer.

No contact with the Germans

However, many residents of the project remained in the dark for the inhabitants of the salt lake, says Luís Machaca, chairman of the civic committee of the Uyuni district town. “None of the Germans spoke to us or explained how we locals were involved.”

This is the view of many people who have heard of the white gold business. A protest was formed against the German-Bolivian joint venture. In addition, President Evo Morales underwent massive criticism in October 2019 after the controversial presidential election. In the end, in the political chaos of the time, it canceled the joint venture without further ado.

Are other companies involved?

This step was useless for Morales himself. He went into exile and now lives in Buenos Aires. If the 2019 presidential election is repeated this Sunday, the issue of lithium mining will also be decided.

Morales candidate from left, Luis Arce, wants to revive a joint venture with the Germans. His opponent Carlos Mesa has not yet committed. He could reorganize lithium mining and possibly bring a Chinese or American company on board.

Don’t just feed the raw material

For Panfilo, one thing is certain: “We don’t just want to supply the raw material abroad, but we also want to build our own lithium industry.” In his opinion, it could work with the Germans. The gigantic white surface of the “Salar de Uyuni” salt lake, which reaches to the horizon, begins next to its 2,000-strong Rio Grande community – a haunted, dusty mansion.

If the lithium treasure it contains, which is in brine at a depth of up to 50 meters, is extracted, “the profits from white gold must go to our community,” the mayor demands. Specifically, Panfilo wants to know what portion of the profits remains in his community. We urgently need to talk about this before construction work begins a few kilometers away. He also wants the community mining cooperative to be involved as a logistics partner.

Panfilo drives his white jeep to a well in front of his village. There is an underground drinking water tank for Rio Grande residents. They still have enough water to draw from a depth of 70 meters. “We demand commitments that we will not mine once lithium mining begins.”

Hopes for long-term employment

While Panfilo believes that cooperation with the Germans should continue, Luis Machaca is rather skeptical. “We want more investment and a financially strong company that only makes batteries here and creates jobs,” explains a man from the Uyuni Civic Committee.

Only after the presidential election will the new government decide the future of lithium mining. The Germans then have to persuade a lot – at the highest political level and also among the inhabitants of the salt lake.

More on this topic on Sunday at 19:20 on ARD Weltspiegel

Mark James

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