According to President Luis Arce, Bolivia is "threatened" and "in the eyes" of the "international right" because of its wealth in lithium, the fundamental mineral for the production of electric batteries and, therefore, one of the strategic natural resources in This weather.
On March 20, in a speech before the bases of his party, Arce thus responded to Laura Richardson, head of the Southern Command of the United States Army, who a few days earlier, in a statement before a commission of the Congress of that country, He had expressed his concern about the Chinese presence in the so-called "lithium triangle" of South America, formed by three countries that produce the mineral, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.
“This region is full of resources and I am concerned about the malign activity of our adversaries, who take advantage of them by pretending they are investing when,
Although it is not the first time that Richardson and Arce have clashed on this issue, the military chief's latest statement came two months after Bolivia signed an agreement with the Chinese consortium CBC (made up of the companies CATL, BRUNP and CMOC ) to build two plants in the salt flats of Coipasa (in the Oruro region) and Uyuni (in the Potosí region).
Each of these plants will have a production capacity of 25,000 tonnes per year of battery grade lithium carbonate (i.e. high purity) and should be ready by 2025.
This agreement implied two novelties: it established the association of the Bolivian Government with a foreign company to exploit the lithium reserves of this country, which are the largest in the world in brines (amounting to 21 million tons).
This is something that, due to the opposition of the producing region of Potosí to previous partners, the country has not been able to achieve until now.
And, furthermore, it constituted the first industrial investment in a technology for the “direct extraction” of lithium from brines, which has even been experimental.
With conventional technology, through evaporation pools, Bolivia has only managed to produce 600 tons of lithium carbonate per year, so it has not yet entered the club of big players in the market for this raw material.
However, an entirely Bolivian plant is expected to come online this year, which according to government plans will produce 15,000 tonnes.
In total, Bolivia is expected to produce more than its neighbors, Chile, which exports around 40,000 tons, and Argentina, which sells 6,000 tons per year, by 2025.
Although the Chinese consortium is made up of prestigious companies (CATL is the world's largest battery producer), Richardson's statement repeats a constant attack against China, which is accused of investing in Latin America to extract resources for its own development, without dealing with local development.
According to some experts, Bolivia has wasted time exploiting the lithium it owns because it wanted to do it without foreign participation, trying to set up a very complex industry on its own.
In just over a decade, and with an investment of around 1,000 million dollars, the largest that the Bolivian State has made in a mining project, it has four pilot plants, 20 lines of evaporation pools and two industrial plants, one of which is lithium carbonate and another is potassium chloride, a substance that is also used in batteries.
If the Bolivian law initially established the "industrialization" of lithium through a "100% Bolivian" venture, in 2018 this became more flexible and the Government of Evo Morales reached an agreement with the German company ACI Systems for the use of another technology with the that carbonate would not be produced, but lithium hydroxide (both substances are interchangeable and equally serve to create batteries).
The agreement established that the chemical products that the German company sold would not pay royalties to the region, Potosí, where the Uyuni salt flat is located;
royalties would only apply to brines extracted from the salar.
This clause triggered a harsh regional conflict against the government of Evo Morales,
which began in June 2019 and converged with the national protests against this president due to the results of that year's elections.
Before falling, Morales canceled the agreement with ACI Systems to try to demobilize Potosí, but his decision had no effect.
In the end, he had to resign and go into exile.
The terms of the contract with the Chinese consortium CBC are not publicly known until now.
This fact and the current percentage of royalties, which is 3%, are once again awakening the susceptibility of Potosí, very great due to the memory of the plunder of silver during the Colony.
Last week there was a blockade of roads by Potosí peasants and a 72-hour strike by the Potosí Civic Committee for the approval of a new law that increases regional royalties to 20% in the event that the price of a ton of lithium exceeds the 30,000 dollars.
Currently, the ton is sold in more than 70,000.
Until now the conflict has not been very intense, but it is feared that it will escalate as the production of the plants already built increases.
In his speech on March 20, President Arce also warned against the "internal right" which, according to him, seeks to destabilize his government.
A former Mining Minister, José Pimentel, urged in a journalistic column "not to kill the wawa (the baby)" of lithium, as already happened in 2019.
In addition, it must be taken into account that Potosí also carried out large mobilizations and achieved the cancellation of another lithium exploitation project by a foreign company in the 1990s, at a time when neoliberal policies were applied in the country.
to the EL PAÍS America newsletter and receive all the latest news in the region.