As Protests Mount Against San Cristóbal Silver Mine, Bolivia Looks to Extract Massive Lithium Reserves, But at What Cost?

April 20, 2010


Jean Friedman-Rudovsky

journalist who has visited the mine in Salar de Uyuni, where lithium is being extracted.

We look at why Bolivian miners have staged a major protest at the San Cristóbal mine, one of the world’s largest silver mines. We speak to journalist Jean Friedman-Rudovsky about the protest and about lithium, one of the most important new energy sources. Bolivia’s lithium reserves are estimated to be the largest in the world. [includes rush transcript]


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Tiquipaya, just outside Cochabamba. Here in Tiquipaya, in — actually, well, within a half an hour, there is a major rally that’s taking place in the soccer stadium. Evo Morales will be welcoming people from around the world, Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia. Thousands are making their way to the stadium as this day of the conference, the World conference, peoples’ summit on the earth, is taking place right here, on climate change and Mother Earth. I’m Amy Goodman.

Protests are stepping up against the San Cristóbal mine in the central Potosi region of Bolivia. The massive silver-lead-zinc mine is owned by the Japanese trading giant [Sumitomo]. Local residents accuse the company of causing environmental damage to the region and are demanding compensation. They’re also demanding drinking water and electricity for their communities. The San Cristóbal protesters blocked a key railway line, which allows the mine to export to neighboring Chile. Locals have also seized control of eighty loaded containers of ore, overturned several of them, and stormed a small San Cristóbal office near the border with Chile.

Meanwhile, that same Japanese firm, [Sumitomo], is vying for the rights to extract lithium from nearby Salar de Uyuni. Lithium is a key raw material used in batteries, ranging from cell phones to laptops. There’s a new focus on lithium for its potential as a key ingredient in a new generation of electric cars batteries. Based even on conservative estimates, Bolivia’s lithium reserves are the largest in the world.

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is a journalist who has visited the mines, the salt mines where lithium is extracted, a number of times. She joins me here in Tiquipaya, in Cochabamba.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: How many times have you been to these mines?

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: I’ve been out to the salt flats about six times in the last year.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, first let’s talk about what’s going on with the silver mine and how significant that is. I mean, it’s interesting it’s taking place right now, as President Morales is here in Tiquipaya welcoming the world to a climate change summit. But talk about these protests.

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: I think it is very significant — I mean, the timing is very interesting, but the protests, in and of themselves. We’re talking about a mine that uses 600 liters of water [per second] in an area that is almost a desert, yet there are farming communities around there, and so it is literally just sucking the water from this area. The mine does not pay any tax on the water that it’s using, and that’s part of the reason why people are protesting.

The other issues that they have, the other demands, is the fact that when the mines started in 2007, they came in and promised development for this region. They promised electricity, roads, drinkable water, telecommunications. And almost none of that is happening. So they’re demanding that they get what they were promised.

AMY GOODMAN: So what have they actually done?

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: They are blocking the roads, two main roadways that go out to Chile. So essentially the mine is unable to export. They’re also blocking the railway. They have taken over offices and, a couple days ago, actually burned down some of the offices. So it’s a very large protest. Today is the ninth today. The government has said that they would like the protests to stop, but they right now are not going to take any forcible action to restrain the protesters. The protesters are demanding that government negotiators come out to that region and sit down at the table with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, they’re extracting silver there.

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: They are. Silver, zinc and lead.

AMY GOODMAN: This is not far from Cerro Rico, the “Rich Hill.” Talk about the significance of this silver mine.

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: The Cerro Rico was the world’s largest silver mine. They say here in Bolivia that the silver that was extracted from the Cerro Rico could have built a bridge from Bolivia all the way to Spain. And it’s become this symbol of sort of — Bolivians see it as the exploitation of their country. Most of the riches that came from the Cerro Rico were taken away to Spain or to other foreign companies in recent years. And the only thing that Bolivians were left with was immense poverty and black lung disease. And so, it’s this gigantic mine or hill that towers over the city of Potosi, and it really has become this symbol of Bolivia’s sort of tortured history with foreign companies, foreign governments and colonialism.

AMY GOODMAN: At the time, centuries ago, it was one of the biggest cities in the world, Potosi.

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: It was. It was sort of the Paris of the world in, I’d say, the 1700s, 1800s. It was the richest city in the entire Western Hemisphere.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet they used slave labor to extract, mine the silver.

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: Virtually slave labor, absolutely. A lot — most of the indigenous from that area were sort of brought in to work in the mines. I believe that the average age of death in Potosi is still in the early fifties.

AMY GOODMAN: So Cerro Rico, not to be confused with the silver mine today that is being blockaded by the miners, is what? About two hours from the salt mines?

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: Potosi — Cerro Rico is about four or five hours from the Salar de Uyuni, where they are building the evaporation pools for the lithium extraction.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, talk about the lithium that is there under the salt and how significant it is, how they’re extracting it, and then — this is a tall order — how this fits into President Morales calling this peoples’ summit on climate change.

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: Well, so lithium, as you said in the intro, is going to be one of the new and most important energy sources in the coming future. It’s found right now in our cell phone and laptop batteries. Lithium is the lightest metal, and so it’s a great energy storage space for car batteries, and virtually every concept car for electric and hybrid vehicles uses a lithium ion battery.

The lithium is found in the brine underneath the salt cap or layer that’s on top of the salt flat. And so, what needs to be done is it — essentially, it’s not even a mine. It’s a process of extraction, in that they bring the brine up to the top, where they’ve built gigantic evaporation pools, and over the course of months, the sun and the wind evaporates the water and leaves several minerals there in the brine. They take that brine through pipelines, or they’re going to take that brine through pipelines, back to a plant that they’re building on solid ground off the southern edge of the Salar. There, they will extract the magnesium, the sulfates, the potassium, all the other minerals that are found in the brine. And the lithium that’s left will be turned into lithium carbonate, which is essentially — it’ll become a powder. And that’s the raw material for these batteries.

And so it’s — as you said, Bolivia has — conservative estimates of known reserves, Bolivia has more than 50 percent. The Salar de Uyuni itself is the largest lithium deposit in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: What does Salar de Uyuni mean?

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: Uyuni salt flats. Uyuni is the closest town, the closest major town, to the salt flats. And “salar” means salt flats. There are other salars throughout Bolivia, and they believe that the total could be somewhere between 60 to 75 percent of the world’s reserves found here in Bolivia.

And I think the relation to the conference that’s happening right now is that, you know, some of what developed countries are calling for when they talk about climate debt and climate justice is not just, you know, getting money for or adapting to climate change. Some of it is, these countries want to jump to producing clean energy. They don’t necessarily want to keep exploiting their same fossil fuels, oil and gas. And so, the fact that Bolivia is leading this charge with trying to develop lithium, I think, is very significant, can be important for Bolivians, because it could be an incredible source of revenue. People are calling Bolivia now the Saudi Arabia of lithium. But it also is important for the world, because it’s going to help fuel a new electric age.

AMY GOODMAN: The lithium, is it also the drug lithium?

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: It is, yes. Up until now, the main uses of lithium have been for smaller batteries, for ceramics, and also for bipolar medication.

AMY GOODMAN: President Morales has said he not only wants to extract the lithium and to be the source of it for the world, but he wants to build the cars, the electric cars that will use the batteries that have lithium, use the lithium batteries.

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: Yes. One of the — one of the major proposals of the Bolivian government, what they’re saying now is that they don’t want to be an exporter of raw materials anymore. They don’t want to do just that. For so long, Bolivia and countries all over this hemisphere have solely exported the raw materials, while foreign corporations have been able to make the money off of the value-added products, everything down sort of the steps of the industrial line.

And so, what Bolivia is saying now is, we have this — it’s a new day. We have a new opportunity. Yes, it’s important to create this raw material, but we want to do not just the lithium carbonate, but produce the metallic lithium, which is sort of the next step in the chain. We want to make the batteries, and we want to make the cars, because we want Bolivians to be able to not only be employed by all of those sectors, but to be able to profit off of the whole — the entire chain of what our raw material can produce.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about President Morales and his environmental policy. We’ve been getting emails here that says, for example, Workshop 18 will be protesting outside this conference — they don’t agree with the environmental policies of President Morales — and that they have been banned from the conference. Who are they?

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: Well, it’s very — it’s complicated. So, on the one hand, the Bolivian government has taken the lead in this global movement to reduce climate change, to really be a leader in calling for the protection of the environment, the protection of Mother Earth. However, here in Bolivia, extractive resources — gas production alone, natural gas production, accounts for about 20 percent of this country’s income. You add on to that other minerals, it probably comes to about 30 percent of this country’s economy is based on extractive resources.

And so, when you get those emails about Working Group 18, those are Bolivians here who are saying, wait a minute, there’s a contradiction. On the one hand, we’re trying to show the world and lead the world in a new way to saving Mother Earth and protecting her rights, yet here in our own country, we’re not doing enough to stop — in fact, the Evo government wants to continue the process of oil extraction and gas, and increase it, not just continue it, but really expand. So it’s people who are from affected communities where there’s going to be new oil drilling that Evo has already — that President Morales has already promised, and from people who are being affected already.

So there’s this real struggle, I think, because, you know, on the one hand, it’s not feasible for President Morales to just say, “We’re going to stop all extractive industry” — the economy of the country would crash — yet it’s clear that he does want to have a new future. It’s just figuring out that road is hard.

AMY GOODMAN: When we flew into Bolivia, we flew into El Alto, which is right next to La Paz. You were recently there at a campaign rally for President Morales. And the speech he gave, talk about it.

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: Yes, I was at the campaign closure rally that was recently in municipal and regional elections here in Bolivia. And I went to the closing rally, and President Morales gave this speech. Towards the front end of this speech, he gave a big plug for Cochabamba, talked about protecting the rights of Mother Earth, talked about this global movement that Bolivia is really leading, both sort of on a people’s level and also in sites like Copenhagen, and talked about his vision of the future.

Towards the end of the speech, basically to close out the speech, he said, “And don’t worry, the oil rigs are going to be here tomorrow.” There’s a large section of oil that’s found in the northern part of the state of La Paz, which is where the city of El Alto is in, and it’s going to bring, again, you know, development, jobs and money to this state. And so he was speaking to his constituents and saying, “I am still committed to developing our own resources, doing it in a way that Bolivians, ourselves, can profit from it.” But it’s still that pushing extractive industry. And so, right there, within that same speech, within forty-five minutes, you have the contradiction that this country is really struggling with.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think now will happen, going back to the mine, to the silver mine? This major protest is taking place. Would you say it’s an embarrassment to President Morales, who will be addressing thousands of people here? Was it timed for that? And how is he going to resolve this? Has he been meeting with the silver miners?

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: I think it is — I think it is an embarrassment. I don’t know — there’s sort of a debate here about whether it was really timed for right now. Either it was a great coincidence for the protesters, or it was purposely timed to happen during this summit. As far as I know, there have not been direct negotiations that have started between the protesters and the government.

The protesters are saying that they want the government to come out there. They want a delegation to be sent out there. And that’s when they’ll come and sit down at the table. The government has been clear, at least up until this point, they’re not going to use repressive force.

As I said, we’re in our ninth day. And it’s now — you know, it’s starting to become major news all over the world, because [Sumitomo], which I believe is one of the biggest trading companies in Japan, is losing a lot of money. They export 48,000 tons of minerals from that mine every day. And for nine days, it hasn’t been able to get out. So the government, I think, is going to have to, at some point, do something to figure out resolving this issue.

The other touchy situation is that [Sumitomo] is one of the companies that has shown the most interest in extracting lithium, in being one of the partners of the Bolivian government in this lithium process. So I think the relationship between [Sumitomo] and the government is something that they need to handle with a lot of care.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is a freelance reporter who has been covering the salt mines and political issues in Bolivia for years now.

This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. When we come back, a brief conversation with Q’orianka Kilcher, the Hollywood actress, who is here, concerned about climate change. And then we’ll talk about geoengineering, how the earth is being changed to deal with climate change. Pat Mooney will be our guest here in Bolivia. Stay with us.