SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 10
Salar de Uyuni
It’s a Bolivian tourist institution, the perspective-deceiving salt flats of Salar de Uyuni. Ten billion tons of salt cover nearly 5,000 square miles and reach out to rainbow-painted mountains, maroon lakes and the world’s rarest species of flamingo. But beneath the Northern Ireland-sized canvas is the ignition behind the ‘green revolution’: the world’s highest concentration of lithium.
We stripped down to our bikinis as the wind howled around us, whipping the sand into a frenzy and throwing it against our shivering bodies. We were insane, there was no question about it. The temperature was -5 °C and I’d spent the entire morning huddled inside eight layers of clothes. Now I was standing here semi-naked.
“What are you waiting for?” one of the guys laughed.
“An inbuilt radiator to materialise,” I retorted.
“Well get in here then.” He gestured to the thermal pool where several other deranged people were sitting. I ran against the wind and slid into the water, submerging myself in 30 °C of heat. I peered above the warmth to watch faint geysers smoking in the distance. It was bliss. Until the wind built up and spat grit in my face.
It was day one of a three-day tour from San Pedro, in northern Chile, to Uyuni in southern Bolivia. It was to encompass pre-historic rock
formations, expansive desert, colour-blotted mountains and lakes of every varying hue. “You’ll see the white lake, green lake, red lake, blue lagoon, and the salt lake,” the salesman from Atacama Mistica had beamed the day before. We’d be traversing the world’s largest salt flat, visible from space (Neil Armstrong mistook Salar de Uyuni for glaciers when he landed on the moon) but one thing was absent from the sales pitch: underneath lies the earth’s largest amount of lithium.
Mining for Lithium
Salar de Uyuni is rich in minerals, they account for the lagoons’ high concentration of colour. The main ingredient, however, is a metal that is fast becoming of the world’s most-demanded. Used in batteries for laptops and mobile phones, lithium’s popularity is increasing with the advent of electric cars. The so-called ‘green revolution’ requiring battery-powered vehicles will take its toll on the environment at Salar de Uyuni.
The US Geological Survey claims at least 5.4 million tons of lithium could be extracted here, up to 70 percent of the earth’s reserves, although their research was conducted over 40 years ago. Nonetheless, a pilot project to begin removing it was launched last year by the Bolivian state mining company COMIBOLT.
Employment won’t be on a large scale, the mining manpower is not expected to exceed 200. However, Bolivian president Evo Morales has promised the inhabitants of the Salar region that they will receive 10 percent of all the profits directly, a figure rejected by a businessman I later met.
“In Tarija [southwest Bolivia] we have 89 percent of Bolivia’s gas reserves. The area takes 11 percent of the profits from the gas sales to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay but it’s a constant battle with ministers who want to take all of the profits and leave Tarija without anything. We aren’t even supplied with electricity from rivers in Bolivia, we have to generate it from our gas which costs double the price than in the rest of Bolivia.”
The scheme to extract the lithium from the brine in the salt flats will involve a five-stage process which Morales is keen to complete without international assistance. He has already rejected several multi-million dollar proposals. However, the technical skills and equipment are lacking in Bolivia and although Morales is keen to criticise the West for its capitalism, onlookers believe Bolivia will have to turn to international investment.
When we asked our Bolivian guide on our three-day tour, Diego, about his views he was unsure. “Bolivia needs more money,” he said touching his fraying cap, “but I’m not sure if this will be good for Salar de Uyuni.” We shared the same sentiment. The evaporation pools needed to extract the lithium contain toxic plastic and the metal is corrosive – if breathed in it can seriously damage the lungs. Bolivia doesn’t have the specialist equipment to mine for it, pick axes were initially used in the pilot scheme.
However Diego was more concerned about his job: “It could harm tourism,” he finally added as he gazed out at the landscape ahead of us. COMIBOLT claims it won’t.
It took us two days to reach the salt flat from San Pedro in Chile, during which our jeep jerked over the desert, red dust penetrating the vehicle and flooding our nostrils with every bump. At Laguna Colorada, a rust-coloured lake with white borax at its edges we collectively gasped in amazement. “It’s red because of the algae,” informed Diego. “It in turn makes the flamingos’ feathers pink.” We craned our necks out of the window for a glimpse of the birds expertly balancing on one leg with their beaks rummaging below the surface.
We’d been told that the world’s rarest species of the bird can be found at Salar de Uyuni although none of us had any idea how to differentiate them between the ‘common’ Andean flamingo. “Are these the James flamingos?” we enquired. The answer was a snort followed by a sigh: “No, they arrive in November to breed, it’s too cold for them right now.” They’re not the only ones it’s too cold for, I mumbled, as I pulled scarf number two over my face.
It seemed that everything in the highlands had been tinged red by the unstoppable dust. My trainers, trousers and hands had all succumbed to it and what I was thought was horrendous wind burn on my face thankfully washed away in the icy water. Even at our lodgings that night the menacing local child, who plagued us with his tantrums, suffered from scarred crimson cheeks caused by the relentless wind.
We’d arrived at our accommodation in Huallojara, 5,000m above sea level, to watch the sun give way to a ruby-toned sky. The mountains surrounding us bathed in the early evening light, their mottled sides taking on a tangerine pigment before darkness shadowed them. The blazing stars now took centre stage but another gale tore through my skin, sending me scuttling inside and leaving the black sky to morph into dawn. That night was possibly one of the coldest in my life. Clad in all my clothes and my sleeping bag, I shivered until sunrise, glad that the temperature of -20 °C would warm up ever so slightly in the daylight.
The settlement of Huallojara consists of eight families living mainly from the tourist trade. The desolate area lacks a school while electricity lasts for only a couple of hours – just after sundown.
According to Diego some of the men who live here work at a foreign-owned bottle manufacturing plant. Borax, a chemical used in producing plastic, is found in high quantities in Salar.
Although normally a man of few words, Diego was happy to tell us his views of the plant: “It’s not good for the men working there. They breathe in the toxic fumes and work for 30 straight days before getting a holiday.”
The next day we took in giant lava rocks launched out by one of the nearby volcanoes some 10,000 years ago. Scaling five metres high they dwarfed the three jeeps idly waiting for the photo-hungry tourists to return. I was certainly dawdling along; despite the elevation dropping by 1,000 metres on day two, I was still feeling the effects of the altitude: a weak yet constant headache and shortness of breath, even at the thought of exercise. I later met a girl who suffered from an asthma attack and was taken, after some begging, to the hospital in Uyuni where she was treated without any problems – the doctors there see at least one case of severe altitude sickness every day. Thankfully I wasn’t one of them.
Sprawling Salt Flats
The final day was what we’d been waiting for, the brilliant white salt flats. During the dry season (June to September) tours roll across the gleaming canvas, formed millions of years ago when Lake Minchin, which covered most of southwestern Bolivia, dried up. In the rainy months they are transformed into blue mirrors reflecting the sky.
I peered in amazement until the horizon, looking only at hexagonal patterns of salt. Occasionally a lone plateau would interrupt the perfectly flat landscape, disappearing as fast as it had appeared. We continued driving, Diego trying to keep to the worn path traversing the salt lake. “Many people have been lost trying to cross the Salar,” he ventured.
“What happened to them?”
“They died,” he said, matter of factly.
The jeep sped past illegally constructed hotels on the salt flats which local businessmen and corrupt officials overlook. In South America’s poorest country making a living outweighs any concern for the future negative effects this will have. “These are not legal, but what can we do?” Diego sighed as he pointed at the flag-surrounded hotel.
We continued our trip in silence, devouring our last glimpse of the salt fields. We sped past men huddled in well-worn clothes who were mining salt for domestic consumption. Their antique pick axes were the same as those used to dig for lithium.
WHERE ON EARTH?
- A land-locked country in South America situated between Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and Peru
- It’s the continent’s poorest country with GDP reaching US$4,600 per capita
- Has the world’s largest concentration of lithium
Salar de Uyuni
- Is the earth’s largest salt-lake
- Covers 5,000 square miles
- Is currently under a pilot scheme to mine for lithium