State-owned Yacimientos de Litio Boliviano (YLB), together with Chinese companies CATL, BRUNP, and CMOC (CBC), will build two production plants in the Bolivian salt flats of Uyuni and Coipasa with direct lithium extraction (DLE) technology, which will be ready by 2025, Spanish daily El País reported.
Each of these plants could output some 25,000 tons of battery-grade lithium carbonate (high purity) per year, according to the agreement Bolivia and the Chinese consortium signed in January, El País reported.
However, “the International Energy Agency establishes that to achieve industrial-level production of approximately 8,000 tons of lithium carbonate or other salt per year, between six to 19 years are needed,” Gonzalo Mondaca, associate researcher at the think tank Bolivia Center for Documentation and Information (CEDIB), told Diálogo on May 3. “The radical change in technology for exploiting Bolivian lithium comes with authorities not listening to the scientists who said in 2014 that, due to climatic conditions, the evaporation system does not work in Uyuni.”
Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flat has the richest known deposit of lithium in the world. About 85 percent of the lithium reserves are located in the so-called lithium triangle, made up of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, according to the Latin American Social Science Council.
Beijing has been on the hunt for this precious metal. Chinese companies have been looking for years for sites to supply themselves with the so-called white gold in different parts of the world, especially in Latin America, to manufacture batteries used in electric cars, Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre reported.
According to Japan’s newspaper Nikkei Asia, the Uyuni salt flat has a lower concentration of lithium ions compared to the salt flats of Argentina and Chile, which means higher extraction costs.
For Mondaca, the agreement between Bolivia and the Chinese consortium means new implications of rights violations for communities and the environment. The deal was not publicized, and its foundations were not submitted to any independent academic-scientific body for consideration, he said.
CBC will build the infrastructure, roads, and conditions necessary to start up the plants and will coordinate extraction activities with YLB. Chinese companies currently manage almost two thirds of the world’s lithium processing and refining, Washington D.C-based international online news magazine The Diplomat reported.
During her March 23, 2023, testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Army General Laura J. Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), said that “China continues to expand its economic, diplomatic, technological, information technology, and military influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Beijing has expanded its ability to extract resources and gets 36 percent of its food import from the region and 75 percent of its lithium from South America, Gen. Richardson said as she addressed regional security.
China’s National Mineral Resources Plan (2016-2022) identifies lithium as key to safeguard national economic security and national defense security and to develop strategic emerging industries, the BBC reported.
Chinese companies dominate Latin America’s lithium investments, with acquisitions in Mexico, as well as in the lithium triangle, the Mexican newspaper El Economista reported in January.
“Of the Russian, Chinese, and U.S. companies involved in industrializing Bolivian lithium carbonate, the U.S. firms are the most advanced in developing experiences in the field to implement the successes they have had in the laboratories,” Mondaca said.
Spanish explorers in the 16th century found heaps of silver in Potosí, Bolivia. Today, “Chinese investors think they have found their own mother lode of a different kind,” Foreign Policy (FP) magazine reported on February 27. China has had success in Argentina, where it paid $962 million to buy Lithea Inc.
“[Latin American] governments know they won’t get the same level of quality by partnering with Chinese companies,” Ryan Berg, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told FP.
The industrialization of lithium is “unfeasible” if sustainability strategic objectives are not adopted, based on social, intergovernmental, and interinstitutional alliances that guarantee transparency and inclusive participation in decision-making, Mondaca said. The first issue to be considered should be environmental pollution.
Other pending tasks are the certification of Bolivian lithium reserves to elaborate a complete industrial technical design, the strategy for access to clean and renewable energy, participation in the design of water resource management, the control of toxic generation, and the protection of ecosystems and livelihoods, Mondaca pointed out in his June 2022 research Not Everything that Glows White Is Lithium.
For Gen. Richardson, it is imperative that we “ use all available levers to strengthen our alliances with the 28 like-minded democracies in the region,” she said during her testimony.