Bolivia rethinks how to industrialise its lithium amid political transition

The political crisis leads the country to rethink its plan for lithium, whose exploitation has several Chinese companies interested

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Bolivia litio Uyunu

In the midst of the political and public health crisis, Bolivia is rethinking how to exploit the lithium in its salt flats (Photo: YLB)

Despite the promise of former president Evo Morales, Bolivia has not yet managed to industrially manufacture batteries with lithium from the Uyuni salt flat for export.

A dispute between two sectors of the department of Potosí, whose deposit is considered one of the largest in the world, has led the current transitional government to change the manager of the state-owned company Yacimientos de Litio Boliviano (YLB) three times in just two months.

That is one more effect of the acute political crisis in Bolivia, which led to Morales’ departure from power on 10 November. The new government – which must be elected in August – will have to rethink the country’s plan for its lithium, whose exploitation interests several Chinese companies.

A plan reshuffled

To complete the cycle from exploitation to industrialisation, the Evo government formed a joint venture with Germany’s ACI Systems for the production of lithium hydroxide, a compound  used to manufacture batteries. The Potosí Civic Committee (Comcipo), which brings together concerned citizens, rejected it, arguing that it was not beneficial to the region or the country.

Faced with social pressure, Evo broke that partnership on 3 November 2019, a week before leaving power.

The government of interim president Jeanine Áñez has so far not defined how to industrialise the mineral. For now, she is seeking to minimise the negative impact of a lawsuit with the departed German company.

Meanwhile, at least two citizen groups – the Southern Civic Committee as well as Comcipo – were pressuring the government before the pandemic to participate in the debate on how to make resource exploitation benefit the local populations.

“Truthfully, everything is uncertain. With the way they are changing the manager so often, it is not possible to go forward with anything. What we must do is wait for the elections and the new government,” said Marisol Cabrera, a member of the residents of Uyuni, who rejected the appointment of Juan Carlos Zuleta, the previous YLB manager, at their last demonstration in La Paz.

She was in Uyuni the second week of February following activities carried out by the new manager Gunnar Valda Vargas at the YLB plants and local populations.

The presidential elections, which were scheduled for 3 May, have been postponed until August due to Covid-19.

aerial view of lithium carbonate industrial plant in Uyuni, Bolivia
Work is progressing on the lithium carbonate industrial plant in Uyuni, originally planned for 2018 and built by Chinese company Beijing Maison Engineering (Image: YLB)

German and Chinese interest

Given its cancellation of lithium hydroxide exploitation with ACI Systems, the current government is going to have to define a strategy for this industrialisation, either just with YLB or in alliance with a foreign partner. It has not finished the legal process of the break with ACI Sytems either.

Nothing is defined, at least for lithium hydroxide. Zuleta, the second manager appointed by Áñez, said in an interview that it will be exploited locally, seeming to leave out any foreign company. His time in office was, however, very brief: he was only there between 8 and 29 January.

The Mining Law establishes that the production of all compounds derived from lithium must be done exclusively by the state. Only industrialisation can be in alliance with a foreign company.

“The previous government tried to confuse the population, indicating that lithium hydroxide produced from residual brine (is) an industrialised product. (…) Lithium hydroxide is nothing more than a refined raw material just like lithium carbonate. Therefore, they should be produced by the State (...). That is what we are going to do (…) We are going to apply the law,” explained former manager Zuleta.

The state lithium company’s legal framework actually only talks about the exploitation of two raw materials: lithium carbonate and potassium chloride. Lithium hydroxide is not mentioned, but being a compound with greater potential and performance for the manufacture of batteries, Evo Morales began its exploitation with the German company.

The new manager Valda, appointed on 29 January, is more cautious than his predecessor. He says that it will be a state policy that will define the issue. In the meantime, he will continue YLB’s work plan that includes the start-up of the lithium carbonate industrial plant before the end of 2020.

Several Chinese companies are known to have visited the regions where the deposits are. Germany has not ruled out being a partner either. “I reaffirm my country’s interest in moving forward with the project,” wrote German ambassador Stefan Duppel on Twitter, after a meeting at the government palace on 31 January.

Litio Uyuni Bolivia
Despite Evo Morales' promise, Bolivia has not yet succeeded in industrially manufacturing lithium batteries for export (Image: YLB)

There are already several Chinese companies linked to lithium in Bolivia. In August 2019, when Morales was president, YLB and the Chinese company Xinjiang TBEA Group formed a joint venture to build lithium carbonate plants in the Coipasa salt flats (in the Oruro department, 109 kilometres from Uyuni) and Pastos Grandes (in Potosí, 550 kilometres from Uyuni).

This alliance was praised by the governments of both countries.

800,000

tonnes of lithium, the amount China needs per year by 2025 to support its electric car industry

“Why China? There is a guaranteed market for the production of batteries,” Morales said when signing the agreement. “This is one more step that we take in the process (...) to industrialise our natural resources,” said then Minister of Energy, Rafael Alarcón.

“By 2025, China is going to need 800,000 tons of lithium,” said Chinese Ambassador Liang Yu. “We are available to help in industrialisation regarding metals and chemicals. We are to realise the South American energy and industrial dream of Bolivia,” he added.

YLB has 51% of the shares of this mixed company created to exploit and industrialise the resources of the two salt flats. Its objective is to produce boric acid, pure bromine and sodium bromide, for which they project an investment of $2.39 billion.

Six months later, that agreement is also being analysed by the new government. However, unlike what happened with the consortium with the Germans in Uyuni, it has not been broken, head of YLB, Gunnar Valda, told Diálogo Chino.

Gunnar Valda
Gunnar Valda is the third manager of the state-owned company Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB) in two months (Image: Miriam Jemio)

The tug of war of the regions

According to the constitution, the Bolivian state is the owner of natural resources such as lithium, of which an estimated 21 million tons exist in what is considered the largest reserve in the world. The other significant deposits are in the neighbouring countries of Argentina and Chile, forming what has been dubbed “the lithium triangle.”

Beyond how and with whom it is industrialised, how will the profits be shared? Both the population and the authorities of the 11 municipal governments that border the Uyuni salt flat defend their right to decide on the fate of lithium in their region. In their vision, they should have a voice on issues such as its exploitation, the partners in their industrialisation and even the appointment of the head of the YLB.

These southern populations do not feel represented by Comcipo (the Potosi Civic Committee), which also claims a voice in the debate, but which they see as representing cities like Potosi rather than local communities.

We have been deceived by industrialisation. They have been telling us for more than 10 years that lithium batteries are going to be produced and until now there is nothing

“They have nothing to do or to decide for us. We support the decision of the government (of Morales). We are looking for partners because technology is advancing and the latest technology is being sought,” Edgar Apala, mayor of Llica, told Diálogo Chino in October, before Morales’ departure from the government and the country.

Since August 2019, the demands have become more acute. Comcipo’s opposition led to a 45-day civic strike, is well as a hunger strike at the government headquarters. They demanded the repeal of the decree that formed the joint venture between YLB and ACI Systems because it failed to comply with the decision of 100% Bolivian industrialisation of lithium.

“We have been deceived by industrialisation. They have been telling us for more than 10 years that lithium batteries are going to be produced and until now there is nothing,” their then-leader Marco Pumari told us in October, while on a hunger strike in La Paz.

Comcipo greve fome
Members of Comcipo protesting through hunger strike  (Image: Miriam Jemio)

Initially, Evo remained firm in his decision to industrialise lithium hydroxide with the German company and minimised the mobilisation of people from Potosi. The political crisis unleashed after the general elections last October changed his plans. His party, MAS, was accused by opponents and citizens of committing fraud. This was later confirmed by the OAS.

Flanked by protests from various sectors and in order to reduce them, Evo broke off the partnership with ACI Systems. But he did not achieve the effect he was looking for. Local communities did not budge in their opposition to his government. They joined the rest of the country’s citizens who demanded new presidential elections.

On 8 January, already removed from power and the country, Morales affirmed that the United States had to do with his departure because it is interested in Bolivian lithium. He did not have any evidence of this.

The environmental impact

One of the concerns about lithium extraction is the negative impact on water availability, as has happened in Chile.

However, many in the region attribute it to climate change. “Just because of the water problem we are not going to give up on industrialisation. We have to develop our communities. The benefit must go to them. But we are demanding that the different ministries, according to the studies that they are presenting to us, do not affect it,” explained Mayor Edgar Apala.

Another group of peasants, grouped together with the federation of workers in southern Potosí (Frutcas) and politically related to Morales’s party, demand that Áñez and YLB allow them to learn about the environmental impact assessment study (EIA), particularly in regards to ground and surface waters.

Valda ensures that the YLB plants have all the environmental licences and that they comply with environmental regulations. Asked on what the major impacts will be and how they will be mitigated, he said that he does not yet have all the environmental information. He promised clarification soon.

Litio Bolivia Uyuni
Bolivia and its neighbours Argentina and Chile form the “lithium triangle” (Image: YLB)

Plans for 2020

In February, YLB presented its annual report (2019-2020) where it analyses a production plan of 45,000 tons of potassium chloride and 700 tons of lithium carbonate over these two years. Its objective is to obtain money from the sale of both to pay the Central Bank its debts.

It also hopes to complete the construction and assembly of the lithium carbonate industrial plant in Uyuni, a work originally planned for the end of 2018. Its manager is the Chinese consortium led by the company Beijing Maison Engineering. 

Meanwhile, there are two pilot plants working. The first is producing potassium chloride, which has been sold in China and locally to the agricultural industry, according to the YLB executive. Another produces lithium carbonate that is being used in the manufacture of batteries for solar panels, planning to increase its annual production from 6,000 to 20,000 batteries.

The YLB manager says that they are manufacturing lithium carbonate batteries – at a pilot level – and that they will market them in Bolivia as external cell phone chargers. For this they require importing an accessory.

“One of these batteries has an approximate cost of 200 bolivianos (about US$30). You can do 10 recharges. It is a higher quality, lasts longer and is ‘made in Potosí,’” Valda said in an interview at his office in La Paz. “All the technology and knowledge has already been developed. What is needed are more resources.”

In the longer term, developing the Bolivian lithium industry will require several factors.

“After the installation of the next government, lawmakers will have to think of a law just on lithium, to ensure that the playing field is well marked for all the actors involved, and to give careful thought to the distribution of royalties and profits,” Valda says.

However, in the midst of a panorama that changes daily in politics and now also because of the coronavirus pandemic, the government does not rule out resorting to foreign partners for lithium as a way to revive the economy. Economy Minister José Luis Parada suggested so in a forum in late April.

The local population is paying a lot of attention to how they decide to exploit it. “Lithium is in our region and it will only leave it in an industrialised state,” says Marisol Cabrera from Uyuni.