Bolivia and Its Lithium: Can the “Gold of the 21st Century” Help Lift a Nation Out of Poverty?



. . . Finally, there are concerns about the chronic problems faced by the Bolivian government to manage such an ambitious program — problems that pre-date President Morales.  To pull off its lithium ambitions, Bolivia will need highly trained and qualified experts, in the technical and scientific aspects of lithium, in business management and economics, and in social and environmental impacts.  And these experts need to be solely accountable to the Bolivian people, not to foreign governments or corporations. . . .

Whether these challenges are surmountable for the people of Bolivia and their leaders is an open debate.  To be certain, there is real potential here.  The demand for lithium is clearly on the rise, and with the possibility in the future of a very big rise.  Bolivia is indeed sitting on the world’s largest supply of lithium and it is being courted by some serious players.  And importantly, all this is happening just as Bolivia has a government that has committed itself to a different way of doing resource business.

In practical terms, the government is also doing some important things right, such as beginning with a pilot effort to test the technological and economic waters.  But there are many things that can go badly wrong on the lithium road ahead.  In the uphill battle to make Bolivia’s lithium dreams a reality, clearly the first step is to acknowledge and understand the economic, environmental, social, and capacity challenges.

What Bolivia is trying to do is hard — very hard.  It is trying to break a curse — the paradox of plenty — that few impoverished nations escape.  Its effort to escape that curse is extremely important, which is why so much of the world is watching.  It is an experiment that is economic, social, political, technological and practical all at the same time.  The fate of its success lies in the hands of the Bolivian people and in their ability to hold their leaders accountable, both for their own benefit and the planet’s.

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Rebecca Hollender, who developed the project and led both its research and writing, has lived in Bolivia for three years, where she has been involved in various environmental and sustainable development initiatives.  Her master’s thesis, The Implications of Bioprospecting for Indigenous People in Suriname, was nominated by the faculty of the Institute for Social Studies, the Hague, Netherlands, for most outstanding Research Paper of 2004/2005.  Jim Shultz, who helped conceive the project and oversaw all final editing, is the executive director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia where he has lived since 1998.  He is also co-editor of Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization, University of California Press, 2009.  This article was published by the Democracy Center in May 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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