Bolivia: lithium interests at play in Evo’s ouster?

lithium fields

Bolivia’s¬†government issued a decree cancelling a massive joint lithium project with German multinational ACI Systems Alemania (ACISA)‚ÄĒjust days before the ouster of President Evo Morales. The move came in response to protests by local residents in the southern department of¬†Potos√≠, where the lithium-rich salt-flats are located.¬†Potos√≠ governor¬†Juan Carlos Cejas reacted to the cancellation by blaming the protests on¬†“agitators” ¬†seeking to¬†undermine¬†development in the region.¬†(DW, Nov. 4)

The ACISA¬†company website says production was slated to start in 2022 at a processing plant to be built in Potosi in partnership with the state-owned Bolivian Lithium Resources (YLB). But protesters in recent days had¬†repeatedly¬†blockaded streets in Potos√≠ City to oppose the project. The¬†Potos√≠¬†Civic Committee pledged to organize a general civic strike in the region if¬†President Morales didn’t respond to their demands. The committee’s¬†president, Marco Antonio Pumari, and its general secretary, Josefina Zuleta, last month launched¬†a public hunger strike in La Paz. (DW, Oct. 10; Brujula Digital, Oct. 1)

Plans for the processing plant¬†were¬†first announced over a decade ago, but it has seen little progress‚ÄĒin large part due to the opposition of local residents, who fear the region’s scarce water resources will be threatened by lithium mining.

Which is why the breathless headlines implying a cause-and-effect relationship between the deal’s cancellation and Evo’s ouster (e.g.¬†CommonDreams‘¬†“Bolivian Coup Comes Less Than a Week After Morales Stopped Multinational Firm’s Lithium Deal”) are missing some important context‚ÄĒand arguably reading things almost backwards. The anti-mining protests in Potos√≠ were part of the general upsurge against Morales, and the deal’s cancellation came two weeks into the national protest campaign demanding his ouster.

And if you are looking for a Washington hand behind the protests, it was unlikely to have been on behalf of a German company (although Bloomberg¬†does inform us that ACISA planned to sell the lithium to¬†Tesla for its electric cars). Note that Juan Carlos Cejas, the pro-mining governor of Potos√≠, was from Morales’ ruling party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), and that he stepped down on the same day that Morales resigned. So did the MAS mayor of Potos√≠ city, Williams Cervantes, likewise citing the need to keep peace in the region. So did Potos√≠’s MAS senator-elect Orlando Careaga.¬† (El Tiempo Latino, Nov. 9)

So avoid the temptation of conspiracy theory. Lithium may be a piece of the overall scenario in Bolivia, but nothing suggests it was the central one. Evo’s cancellation of the project was a capitulation to protests‚ÄĒso it isn’t like the protests were being inflamed by the lithium interests or local brokers who stood to profit. On the contrary, the local brokers were MAS politicians and Evo’s allies.

Earlier this year, the Morales government signed a lithium exploitation deal with a Chinese company, and we can imagine that many in Washington looked on this with trepidation as another step in Beijing’s design to establish control¬†over¬†the planet’s rare earth minerals. It remains to be seen if this¬†deal will be honored by whatever new government ultimately emerges in still-leaderless Bolivia.

In any case, the “Lithium Triangle,” which holds¬†80% of the world’s reserves of lithium brine,¬†straddles Argentina¬†and Chile as well as Bolivia.¬†And Argentina’s lithium sector is most definitely open for business, with some 45 active concessions, and much Korean capital involved.¬†Local campesino communities around the Argentine salt-flats¬†have also been holding protests against the lithium exploitation. (Argus Media, Oct. 25; Di√°logo Chino, Oct. 26;¬†IDEP Salud, March 11)

With last month’s election in Argentina, the incumbent right-wing Mauricio Macri was defeated by center-left challenger Alberto Fern√°ndez, with “Pink Tide” ex-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (no relation) to become vice president. (BBC News, Oct. 28; BBC News, Oct. 27) And the mineral inerests are quite sanguine about this development. As enthuses: “During his campaign, Fern√°ndez met with representatives from 24 mining companies with projects in the country and told them he considered mining an opportunity, rather than a problem.” He also promised to revise Argentina’s “controversial” (read: too stringent) glacier protection law, and “guarantee clear rules” for the natural resources sector (read: override more restrictive policies by provincial governments).

The communities that stand to be impacted by extractive activities are generally not too concerned whether the corporate interests involved are American, European or Chinese, or whether the government that welcomes them is right or “left.”

Photo: Wikipedia


    Evo Morales jumps on lithium conspiracy theory


    Evo Morales seems to be jumping on the notion of a lithum conspiracy behind his ouster.

    “It was a national and international coup d’etat,” Morales told AFP in an exclusive interview in Buenos Aires on Dec. 24. “Industrialized countries don’t want competition.”

    Morales said Washington had not “forgiven” his country for choosing to seek lithium extraction partnerships with Russia and China rather than the US.

    “That’s why I’m absolutely convinced it’s a coup against lithium,” he said. “We as a state had begun industrializing lithium… As a small country of 10 million inhabitants, we were soon going to set the price of lithium…¬†They know we have the greatest lithium reserves in the world of 16,000 square kilometers.”

    But as we note above, this doesn’t really stand up to analysis.

  2. Elon Musk jumps on lithium conspiracy theory

    So, on July 24,¬†Tesla¬†CEO¬†Elon Musk¬†tweeted¬†that a second “government stimulus package is not in the best interests of the people.”¬†Some smart-aleck¬†responded, “You know what wasn’t in the best interest of people? The U.S. government organizing a coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia so you could obtain the lithium there.”¬†Musk¬†shot back: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”

    And of course the inevitable places like¬†TeleSur,¬†People’s World¬†and¬†CounterPunch¬†jump on this as if¬†the US¬†government¬†really did¬†organize¬†the coup so Elon Musk could grab the lithium there.