In the South American highlands, prehistoric landscapes of salt flats and plant life are confronting the environmental challenges of drought and lithium mining

During the last Ice Age, parts of the Andes were covered by the waters of large prehistoric lakes. Glaciers extended their long arms across the interior of what would become South America, and receding water shaped smaller bodies of water, dividing amphibian populations from one another. Giant mammals like glyptodonts, gomphotheres, and megatheriums roved across the Altiplano—the Andean plateau which today traverses three countries in South America (mainly Bolivia, but Perú and Chile as well). Little remains of that movement now: when those paleo-lakes eventually evaporated, the Salar de Uyuni was born, the largest salt flat in the world. During the rainy season, the Salar becomes a polished mirror of the sky, and those who traverse it feel like they are walking among the clouds. Occasionally, motorcyclists get lost in that white horizon; sometimes vehicles carrying tourists get stuck in the plain flooded by torrential rains.

According to legend, bank robbers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid also crossed the salt flat during their escape. They died nearby, shot in 1908 by the Bolivian police in the town of San Vicente, where there is a museum devoted to them. The salt flat became well-known worldwide in 1969 thanks to a visit by the astronaut Neil Armstrong, who had seen the bright whiteness from space and thought it was an enormous glacier. Since then, the influx of visitors has not managed to exhaust its mystery. One of its treasures is the yareta, a gigantic fluorescent shrub from the Andes. This plant grows only about half an inch per year; that means that the enormous green masses found on the Altiplano are over 3,000 years old in some cases. Encountering a yareta is to meet a living being that began to spread its tiny leaves when the Great Pyramid of Giza was under construction. Another treasure of the Salar de Uyuni, and a much more coveted one, is lithium. This chemical substance is rarely found in elemental form in nature, yet it is crucial for the construction of electric car batteries, digital cameras, computers, and cell phones. Lithium is also important for the pharmaceutical industry, which uses this so-called “white gold” in mood-stabilizing medications. One of the few places on the planet where lithium exists abundantly is the Salar de Uyuni.

Left: Llamas near a pond on the road from Chituca to Uyuni. Right: View of Laguna Colorada.

The cycles of prosperity and scarcity in Bolivia map to the success or failure of raw materials in international markets. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen the successive booms and declines of rubber, tin, oil, and gas extraction. Now, it is lithium’s turn. Last year, the first lithium processing plant was inaugurated in the municipality of Colcha K—located within the Salar de Uyuni—and the Bolivian government has announced agreements with China and Russia for the material’s exploitation and sale.

The lithium processing plant will need to extract a lot of water from the region, which will affect the local population, already severely impacted by the climate disaster. A recent Bolivian film, Utama (2022), winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, explores the abandonment of a village in the Altiplano due to water scarcity. In Utama, directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi, a Quechua peasant couple contemplates the end of their village: drought seems to have dealt the final blow. Virginio—who is very ill and must decide whether to stay or leave for the city of La Paz, where he has family—gazes at the sky in search of a miracle that will allow him to stay: the salvation of rain. Meanwhile, since there is no water in the village, his wife Sisa must go to the last spring nearby every day. Loayza focuses on the couple and manages to extract bold symbolic repercussions from what seems like a simple story: the director condenses in the drama of Virginio and Sisa the decision that so many inhabitants must make daily amid the aridity of the Altiplano. Worsening drought and difficulty of cultivating food in a landscape like the Altiplano’s has driven many to migrate elsewhere—to Santa Cruz, within Bolivia, or to Chile, Brazil, Argentina, or the United States.

Bolivia’s bodies of water are disappearing. Just a few decades ago, the Poopó was a lake that spanned 3,500 square kilometers (larger than about 30 recognized countries, including Luxembourg, Hong Kong, and Singapore), and thousands of flamingos landed on its waters like a pink mist. By 2015, the Poopó had turned to desert, dried up by climatological phenomena like El Niño. The indigenous Uru people, who historically survived by hunting and fishing in the lake and spent much of their day navigating it, had to make the radical transition to a life without it: their boats were stranded in the salty desert alongside the skeletons of birds and fish. Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world and a fundamental part of Bolivian identity, has suffered a considerable reduction of 4 meters of depth and, according to several environmentalists, is also destined to dry up until it disappears. The impact is already staggering: the economy of 3 million people depends on the wellbeing of Lake Titicaca, where 60,000 hectares of cattail are used for housing, to build boats, and to produce handicrafts for tourism. The water of the lake is also important for fishing, for herding sheep and llamas, and for the survival of dozens of species of fish and birds.

Laguna Verde with view of the Licancabur volcano.

The people of Potosí, the state in southwest Bolivia where the Salar de Uyuni is located and where almost 1 million people live, are rationing water, yet mining companies operate as if there’s no drought. Environmental critics believe it’s time to move away from the model of development based on mining exploitation that’s so characteristic of the country. During the Colonial era, Potosí was one of the world’s most prosperous cities thanks to the exploitation of Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain); the silver extracted from its depths helped finance the expansion of the Spanish Empire. However, the extractive cycle of silver left little for Bolivia, and Potosí is now one of the poorest cities in the country. Some voices argue that the industrialization of lithium and mining exploitation are necessary, even though the prosperity promised since the ’90s has not yet materialized. In towns like Río Grande, on the edge of the Uyuni salt flat, some residents invested their savings in building new businesses, hoping for an economic boom. Some formed cooperatives and bought trucks to transport tons of ore from nearby mines to the processing plant. They constructed the Lithium Hotel, which now stands empty. Río Grande is doing better than other communities, but lithium mining is slow; civic leaders who once opposed any alliance with foreign capital are now willing to let the government make deals with other countries in exchange for technology and knowledge.

From Potosí, you can travel through the Altiplano towards northern Chile. The territory is dry and colorful: various shades of orange, ochre, brown, and crimson abound. Along the way, one encounters solitary cacti, strange rock formations, farmers planting quinoa, and the occasional small village. Near the border with Chile lies the Charaña railway station, where, around 1975, two dictators—Chilean Augusto Pinochet and Bolivian Hugo Banzer—sealed an agreement with an embrace, allowing Bolivia to have access to the sea through the concession of a strip of territory lost to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879–84). The agreement was broken a few years later. Bolivia is a landlocked country as a result of the war, and because of an elite that never saw that territory as important, as it was not inhabited by Spaniards but by indigenous Bolivians. One hundred years apart, generations of Bolivian elite viewed the repeated losses of territory and coast with indifference. “The logic of lineage, exaggerated to absurdity, has always been more conclusive and final than the logic of the nation,” Bolivian philosopher and sociologist René Zavaleta Mercado wrote about the war.

Top Left: View of the Salar de Uyuni and the Tunupa volcano, as seen from Isla del Pescado. Top Right: Árbol de Piedra. Bottom: Laguna de Uyuni at sunset.

Animals are also bearing the full impact of the drought: farmers in Potosí and Oruro report daily deaths of llamas and alpacas due to the lack of fodder and fresh water. The little water that is found is salty. A century ago, the Bolivian modernist poet Gregorio Reynolds wrote a poem to the llama. Some of his verses go like this:

Inalterable, por la tierra avara
del altiplano, luce la mesura
de su indolente paso y su apostura,
la sobria compañera del Aymara.

Unchanging, through the harsh land
of the Altiplano, it displays
a languid rhythm, and a grace,
the austere companion to the Aymara.

Read in the era of the Anthropocene, the linguistic gesture that freezes the animal in perpetual present is striking: the llama is “unchanging.” If people are suffering from water scarcity, so are the camelids. The llama is not unchanging. Nothing is, and one of the current challenges for Bolivia is how to project the development of a country burdened by climate change at a time when lithium is the “white gold” in which many concentrate their dreams of prosperity. Bolivia’s politicians have not really given much thought to the need to adapt its economic model to the new reality of global warming. Lithium may be the next extractivist boom of Bolivia, but first the government needs to solve the issue of water for both the people of the Altiplano and the processing plant, if such a thing is possible.