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

Bolivia's government issued a decree cancelling a massive joint lithium project with German multinational ACI Systems Alemania (ACISA)—just days before the ouster of President Evo Morales. The move came in response to protests by local residents in the southern department of Potosí, where the lithium-rich salt-flats are located. Potosí 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 Potosí City to oppose the project. The Potosí 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—in 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—and arguably reading things almost backwards. The anti-mining protests in Potosí 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 it 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 Potosí, was from Moraels' ruling party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), and that he stepped down on the same day that Morales resigned. So did the MAS mayor of Potosí city, Williams Cervantes, likewise citing the need to keep peace in the region. So did Potosí'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—so 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; Diálogo 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 Fernández, 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 Mining.com enthuses: "During his campaign, Fernández 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."