Politics of Nature: A History of Enclosure and Commodification of the Uyuni Salt Flat

Isla del Pescado

This post is part of a series on Politics of Nature, edited by Emily Webster, in which contributors explore the diverse and complex relationships of humans and their nonhuman environments, as they are framed by politics, broadly construed. The series showcases the ways in which thinking about, writing about, and acting within nature has affected these relationships.

The Uyuni salt flat (Salar de Uyuni) in Bolivia is one of the most amazing natural wonders on the planet: a white desert stretched out apparently endlessly, a landscape where one feels overwhelmed by solitude and silence. Over the past forty years, this location has been transformed, enclosed, and commodified in a long and conflictive process to extract its mineral resources: lithium, in particular, an omnipresent material in modern life and one in growing demand within the paradigm of the green economy and the low-carbon energy transition.

In this article, I explore the environmental history of the Uyuni salt flat by examining the different interests at play and their effects on this landscape at four different moments in time. This temporal division, I argue, illustrates how economic, social, and political interests transformed this location into the world’s largest deposit of lithium.[1]

The Uyuni salt flat is the largest salt flat on the planet, extending 10,582 km2 at 3,653 meters above sea level in the Bolivian Andes, in the southwest region of the department of Potosí. Back in the 1970s, Bolivia was one of the first countries in South America to begin scientific research on the mineral resources in the salt flats. Scientists conducted the first geological studies between 1973 and 1976, working together with NASA on Project ERTS (Earth Resources Technology Satellites) to locate potential resources in the salt flats. These studies suggested that Bolivia had the world’s largest deposit of lithium—from brine as well as reserves of potassium, sodium, magnesium, boron, and chlorine—near the area of Rio Grande in the south of the Uyuni salt flat.[2] This discovery resulted in a long and conflictive process of exploitation and commodification.

The narrative of the first reports emphasized the link between scientific knowledge and economic interests as a justification to extract—and commodify—resources in the Uyuni salt flat. The main objective outlined in one of the key reports, for instance, was the “scientific study of the evaporite basins in prehistoric lakes for the identification of reserves of elements (lithium, potassium, borax) to be economically exploited.”[3] This narrow, utilitarian approach essentially disregarded the Uyuni salt flat as an ecosystem and a space where communities lived off, and with, the playa, The language is problematic in two major ways: 1) it depicts the Uyuni salt flat as an isolated and semi-empty location, and 2) it omits indigenous communities as part of the landscape and other subnational scales (such as provinces and municipalities). Both aspects have had long-term effects on the portrayal of the Uyuni salt flat as a Fiscal Reserve and the governance of its resources.

Far from a desolate location, the Uyuni salt flat and the surrounding four provinces (Antonio Quijarro, Nor Lipez, Daniel Campos, and Cabrera in the Department of Oruro) have a population of 78,609 inhabitants according to the 2012 census, and around 329 indigenous communities of Quechua and Aymara ethnic origins. From 1973 to 2014, this landscape was at the core of social conflicts for its delimitation as a Fiscal Reserve on four separate occasions (see image below). A Fiscal Reserve is defined as a demarcated area with exclusive access reserved for the state (the central government) to quantify mineral resources and define a strategy for extraction. Yet the demarcation of the Uyuni salt flat as a Fiscal Reserve has been part of a changing history of resource governance both in neoliberal and post-neoliberal times. The use of that term also serves to illustrate the distinct role of the state as both a mediator and driver of socio-environmental changes in processes of commodification.[4]

Fiscal Reserve map
Various delimitations of a Fiscal Reserve in the Uyuni salt flat. Based on data from the U.S. Geological Survey and Espinoza.[5]
[Image description: a map with three circles, the inner circle is green, the outer circle is purple, and a third circle at nearly the same placement as the purple circle but with ragged edges is blue.]

Between 1983 and 1993, the government implemented a new delimitation of the Fiscal Reserve. As a result, the Uyuni salt flat was extended by 2,326,000 hectares, and renamed as the Gran Salar de Uyuni. In 1988, the Lithium Corporation of America (LITHCO), the world’s largest company of lithium at the time, received a direct invitation from the government to extract resources in the salt flat. Several civil society organisations from the urban and rural areas—such as the. Civic Commitee from Potosi (COMCIPO), the Regional Federation of Peasants from the Southwest of Potosí (FRUTCAS), and the Universidad Autónoma Tomás Frías—launched a series of protests against the signing of the contract for three main reasons: 1) it was considered a bad deal for the state; 2) a lack of international bids; and 3) accusations of corruption based on government ties to a transnational company. After a new bid, a new contract, and different negotiations with the government, LITHCO eventually withdrew its involvement and moved operations to the Hombre Muerto salt flat in Argentina.[6]

In 1998, the Fiscal Reserve of the salt flat was modified for a third time. In this case, its original area was drastically reduced to the so-called “salt crust perimeter.” This reduction allowed different rich deposits of boron (ulexite) to be conceded to private actors. A subsidiary of the Chilean company Quiborax obtained concessions, and started extracting ulexite in 1997, coming into conflict with already-established local mining operations. This created local conflicts with the communities surrounding the Uyuni salt flat. In 2003, following the social turmoil of the Gas War in Bolivia, a new wave of protests emerged in the Southwest region of Potosí. Protestors demanded the reconstitution of the former Fiscal Reserve area of the salt flat and the reversion of private concessions. In 2004, both demands were successful and Quiborax lost its concession rights. Yet in 2018, after fourteen years of legal arguments at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) regarding the legality of the expropriation of a mining investment and the reversing of eleven Quiborax’ private concessions in the salt flat, the Bolivian state (as in, the government of Evo Morales) agreed to pay compensation of US$42.6 million to Quiborax.

The last chapter of this history began in 2008 with an initiative by the Bolivian government to extract and industrialize lithium in the Uyuni salt flat. The state mining company Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB) managed and led operations in three different phases (pilot, industrial-scale extraction, and industrialization). With an estimated public investment of one billion U.S. dollars, it represented one of the most ambitious state mining initiatives in Bolivian history.

In 2018, Germany reached an agreement with YLB for a joint venture. The partnership YLB-ACISA aimed to extract lithium hydroxide from residual brine from existing evaporation ponds, and to establish a cathode industry with an approximate investment of US$1.3 billion. Yet this partnership dissolved during the political crisis of November 2019, when Evo Morales was forced to resign from office for allegedly rigging the election. Once again, lithium became the catalyst of a broader political agenda. Local leaders from Potosí created a narrative around lithium in particular, and the Uyuni salt flat in general, that eventually put pressure on the government to negotiate and eventually step back from the partnership.

More than a decade later, this initiative has been criticized for planning delays, the role of foreign companies (e.g. from China and Germany) as partners, and internal conflicts with communities and civil society organizations in Potosí due to royalty distribution. In a less emphatic way, there are some environmental concerns about brine extraction.

It is argued that the production of lithium from brine is environmentally benign due to the solar evaporation process. Moreover, the extraction of lithium is water intensive and significant volumes of waste water are generated in the process too. Some estimate that the industrial-scale extraction of lithium at the Uyuni salt flat will increase significantly in the future (by approximately 30.000 tons of lithium/year). Given the current technology and a water recovery rate of 30-40%, a huge amount of water would be used (around 2.450.000.000 litres per year). In addition, the separation of minerals in evaporation ponds requires large amounts of chemicals (especially quicklime). Without adequate management and storage of the toxic residuals, the fragile and unique ecosystem of the salt flat and the quinoa production of nearby communities could be negatively affected.[7] To date, there is a lack of serious debate about the environmental consequences of lithium extraction in the Uyuni salt flat and the negative impacts these could have on community livelihoods.

The Uyuni salt flat—once known as the white desert, a supposedly isolated and valueless landscape—has become a strategic space for a large-scale state-owned mining project to extract and industrialize lithium. Its history reflects a complex process of commodification and enclosure driven by a combination of economic, social, and political interests. As this case demonstrates, the salt flat is a hybrid landscape, in constant making in social, biophysical, and technological terms.

[1] Environmental history is defined in this context as a cross-disciplinary framework to understand the multiple dimensions of past human-environment interactions. See e.g. Mark Carey, “Latin American Environmental History: Current Trends, Interdisciplinary Insights, and Future Directions,” Environmental History 14, no. 2 (2009): 221-252.

[2] Rodrigo Aguilar-Fernandez, “Estimating the Opportunity Cost of Lithium Extraction in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia” (Master Project, Duke University, 2009); Jorge Espinoza Morales, Minería boliviana: su realidad (La Paz: Plural Editores, 2010); Federico Nacif, “Bolivia y el plan de industrialización del litio: un reclamo histórico,” Revista del CCC 14/15 (2012).

[3] See e.g. O. Ballivian and F. Risacher, Los Salares del Altiplano Boliviano: métodos de estudio y estimación económica (Paris: ORSTOM, 1981).

[4] Maria Daniela Sanchez‐Lopez, “From a White Desert to the Largest World Deposit of Lithium: Symbolic Meanings and Materialities of the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia,” Antipode 51, no. 4 (2019): 1318-1339; and “Sustainable Governance of Strategic Minerals: Post-Neoliberalism and Lithium in Bolivia,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 61, no. 6 (2019): 18-30.

[5] Pablo Poveda Ávila, “Impacto Economico de la Industrializacion del Litio del Salar de Uyuni en la Region,” in Un presente sin futuro: El proyecto de industrialización del litio en Bolivia, eds. Ricardo Calla Ortega, Juan Carlos Montenegro Bravo, Yara Montenegro Pinto, and Pablo Poveda (La Paz: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario / Plataforma Energetica, 2014).

[6] Federico Nacif, “Bolivia y el plan de industrialización del litio: Un reclamo historico”. Revista del CCC 14/15 (2012); Luis Pozzo Iñíguez, “Saqueo del litio y del boro potosino: la tragica historia de nuestros minerales,” in Análisis del poder transnacional minero en Bolivia: Las minas no son nuestras, eds. Luis Pozzo Iñíguez, J. Colque, and Pablo Poveda Ávila (La Paz: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario, 2017); Walter Orellana Rocha, “El litio: una perspectiva fallida para Bolivia” (Master Project, Universidad de Chile, 1995); Jorge Espinoza, Minería boliviana: su realidad (La Paz, Bolivia: Plural editores, 2010).

[7] Bruno Fornillo, “La energía del litio en Argentina y Bolivia: comunidad, extractivismo y posdesarrollo,” Colombia Internacional 93 (2018): 179-201; Ricardo Calla Ortega, “Impactos de la Producción Industrial del Carbonato de Litio y del Cloruro de Potasio en el Salar de Uyuni in Un presente sin futuro: El proyecto de industrialización del litio en Bolivia, eds. Ricardo Calla Ortega, Juan Carlos Montenegro Bravo, Yara Montenegro Pinto, and Pablo Poveda (La Paz: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario / Plataforma Energética, 2014).

*Cover image: Isla del Pescado, in the middle of Salar de Uyuni. Photo by author.

[Cover image description: A tall cactus plant stands front and center in the photo, with a cactus forest on a sloping hill behind, and blue sky fading to white as it reaches the horizon. Mountains are visible in the far distance.]