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As demand for powerful batteries soars, Bolivia is tapping giant lithium deposits and dreaming of a white gold rush
By Cédric Gerbehaye
What gold meant to earlier generations of fortune seekers, lithium may eclipse in the coming years. Its value has tripled since 2015 – a clear reflection of a rocketing global demand that is likely to keep rising as electric cars become more popular.
One version of the Tesla Model S runs on a battery pack with about 140 pounds of lithium compounds – the equivalent of 10,000 cell phones, according to Goldman Sachs.
France and the United Kingdom have announced that they will ban the sale of cars running on gas or diesel by 2040. So it would seem evident that a country abounding with lithium need never fear poverty. Though lithium mining operations exist on every continent except Antarctica, up to three-quarters of the known lithium reserves are in the Altiplano-Puna Plateau, a 1,100-mile-long stretch in the Andes.
The salt bed deposits are concentrated in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, known as the Lithium Triangle. In Bolivia, under the world’s biggest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, lies one of the greatest lithium deposits, around 17 per cent of the planet’s total.
By exploiting its lithium reserves, the government of Bolivia – where 40 per cent of the people live in poverty – sees a path to fortune. In 2018 it signed a deal with Germany, to produce up to 40,000 tons of lithium per year over a period of 70 years. But serious questions remain as to whether any of the impoverished local communities will see a share of the riches.
Evaporation pools at the lithium pilot plant in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Across 10 pools, brine lies under the sun and evaporates, a process which is used to obtain lithium. The pools can reach a length of 1km by 500m. Located at an altitude over 10,000 feet, this is the largest salt flat in the world.
A military observation post in the middle of Salar de Uyuni.
While the indigenous Aymara population harvests and sells salt crusted on the surface of the salt flat, the much more lucrative lithium is dissolved in brine found deep underground. Nazario Copa (left) and his family are working to extract salt. They are called “saleros”.
The Cruz family came to pray at the grave of their late grandfather during Todos Santos (All Saints Day) in the Uyuni cemetery. This day is one of the highlights of the Bolivian calendar.
Three generations of the Copa family live in four one-room buildings in Chiltaico near the northern edge of the Salar. Like many of the Aymara who live in the region, the family makes money by collecting salt from a small plot, often labouring 12 hours a day in intense sunlight and brisk wind.
At the end of the rainy season, which covers the Salar with a mirror-like layer of water, Paulina Flores Ayala brings a two-day-old baby llama and its mother back to the rest of her herd.
Moises Chambi Yucra loads a truck with salt, which he’ll take to a processing cooperative in Colchani, Bolivia.
Maintenance workers try to detach the salt inside pipes. A 2cm layer of salt is formed each day.
Workers place a layer of felt in one of the evaporation pools at the lithium pilot plant. Before being able to receive the water containing the lithium, which is pumped from underground, the pools must be entirely covered with several layers of felt and PVC.
Lithium carbonate is being heated in a highly protected area at the pilot plant in Llipi, Bolivia.
Workers arrive at the camp in the Salar de Uyuni for lunch.
Gido Salazar, a brick layer, is chewing coca outside of his tent and texting his wife. Pilot plant in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.
Workers take samples of crystals to analyse the level of lithium from one of the evaporation pool at the pilot plant in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.
Chinese workers are playing ma jong. In addition to China, many countries, including France, Germany, South Korea and Japan are working to obtain lithium in Bolivia.
Flags left by tourists from around the world flutter in the wind on the Salar. Drawn by its austere beauty, visitors have flocked to the remote region. Tourism has become the economic mainstay of nearby towns, such as Colchani and Uyuni.
Nicodemos Chambi Yucra and his father, Damián Chambi Mamani, craft salt bricks for use in construction. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.
A salt worker drinks singani, a Bolivian national liqueur, before continuing to work in the Salar de Uyuni.
Wilmer Flores, his face shielded to protect against sunburn, collects salt, as do many Aymara and Quechua who live near the Salar.
A salt worker pauses while loading salt in a truck in the Salar de Uyuni. The populations of the north of Salar fear they won’t benefit from the financial windfall that will accompany the processing of lithium.
Abel Copa, “salero” of the Rosario salt cooperative in Colchani, south of Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.
Amalia Layme packs the salt in plastic bags at the Rosario salt cooperative in Colchani, south of Salar de Uyuni.
Todos Santos in the graveyard of Tahua, north of Salar de Uyuni. This day is one of the highlights of the Bolivian calendar, celebrating the dead.
Angelo Martín Flores Chambi takes a break for a snack in his family’s Chevy pickup while his parents, brothers, and sisters extract salt from the Salar. Children attend school during the week but help their parents on weekends.
The foundry of Pulacayo, the industrial centre founded in 1833 around the Huanchaca mine in the department of Potosi, Bolivia.
Peine village, south east of the Salar de Atacama, is a service community for the people working in lithium companies such as Rockwood Lithium, which is based in the village.
A on-site potassium storage area run by SQM (Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile), the second largest lithium producer in the world, in the Atacama Salar, Antofagasta region.
The potassium storage area in the second largest lithium producer in the world, in the Salar of Atacama, Antofagasta region.
A pool operator measuring the salt levels in one of the brine operation pools at SQM (Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile).
Jendery Del Carmen Sosa Catur, dispatch operator, from in her second week of work for SQM at the dispatch control hut.
The entrance of Toconao village next to the Salar of Atacama, Chile.
The indigenous communities are divided over the extraction of lithium. For some, the lithium boom is an employment opportunity while others are worried that the plants, which use vast amounts of water, will increase the existing water shortages. Jujuy Province, Argentina.
Where it goes: at a BMW plant in Leipzig, Germany, the i3 model is assembled. Powered by a lithium-ion battery, it’s the automaker’s first fully electric vehicle.
Wesley Deno at the Audi assembly line, is inspecting the 36 modules that compose the ion lithium battery ‘EFFICIENT’ in the new eTron model in Brussels, Belgium.
At a plant in Brussels, Belgium, a worker looks over the lithium-ion battery that will power the Audi e-tron, an electric SUV. The liquid-cooled battery is made up of separate modules integrated into the floor of the car. Rising electric-vehicle sales have spurred a significant increase in lithium extraction.
When he set out in journalism as a photographer, Cédric Gerbehaye first travelled to Israel and Palestine during the Second Intifada to document the aftermath of the Oslo Accords. From 2007 to 2010 he worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, receiving several international recognitions, including The Olivier Rebbot Award from the Overseas Press Club of America, Amnesty International Media Award and World Press Photo. His work has been featured in several exhibitions and received grants around the world: Magnum Foundation, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Scam, Journalism Fund. Four books have appeared to date: Congo in Limbo, Land of Cush, Sète#13 and D’entre eux. Images by Gerbehaye are to be found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Musée de la Photographie in Charleroi, MEP – Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris and at the FoMu – FotoMuseum in Antwerp.