Can Bolivia benefit from a potential lithium bonanza?

This press release was prepared by Cody Zeger, Brown University, and was originally posted on IntercambioClimatico.com.

History is on the verge of repeating itself in Bolivia. In a time when the world is trying to find the best ways to achieve sustainable development and deal with climate change, Bolivia stands poised to provide an especially vital resource to any budding green revolution: lithium. But looking at the country’s troubled mining history it is questionable whether Bolivia will be able to turn its lithium into prosperity, or just another exported opportunity.

Lithium is used to create the most efficient electric and hybrid car batteries and is therefore crucial for the drive towards achieving great sustainability and low carbon transport. A 2009 U.S. Geological Survey reveals that the majority of the world’s untapped lithium reserves are in Bolivia, raising the prospects that the country could become the world’s main supplier of lithium, generating huge profits and much needed opportunities for its people. Bolivia’s past experience with mining, however, reveals a dark and difficult relationship with its natural resources and foreign mining interests.

This paper by Spencer Fields, Brown University, explores Bolivia’s prolific mining history to see why their past and current operations have struggled to provide major benefits for the country and how they can learn from the past in order to improve environmental policy and mining regulation in their upcoming lithium mining ventures.

Bolivia’s mining history dates back to the mid-1500s, when the Spanish colonizers used silver from the Cerro Rico in Potosí to provide most of the currency for their entire empire. At its height in the mid seventeenth century, the population of Potosí reached 160,000 people, making it similar in size to contemporary London and Paris. The huge infrastructure created for silver mining at this time greatly influenced Bolivia and created the mining culture that still persists today.

Just like the Spanish mining back in colonial times, the current silver mining operation at Bolivia’s largest mine (Minera San Cristóbal) is foreign-owned and has adverse effects on the health of the Bolivian people and environment. In order to shirk responsibility for these effects, however, the companies responsible often use corporate social responsibility programs, which appease communities in the short-term while ignoring the long-term implications of their operations.

Today, Bolivia has many options for how they will provide the world with lithium. If history is not to be repeated, the search for an effective middle ground between complete foreign control and total nationalization of the mining industry needs to take place. This option is required  to protect the Bolivian people as well as their environment in order to make mining beneficial for Bolivia. Programs such as the Oil-to-Cash project, countrywide Development Funds, and others that seek to allocate more of the mining profits towards the Bolivian people and protection of the environment could be the middle ground.

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