Located in the heart of South America, it contains Bolivia the largest lithium deposits in the world – an enviable position, in the eyes of many countries, as the electric vehicle market takes off. Although EVs emit less greenhouse gases than fuel-powered vehicles, their batteries need more minerals – especially lithiumwhich is also used to make batteries for smartphones and computers.
Unlike its neighbours Chile and ArgentinaBolivia has yet to become a major player in the global lithium market. In part, this is because the high altitude salt flats are not suitable for the usual extraction methodevaporation by the sun.
But that seems to be changing: in January 2023, state-owned company YLB will arrive signed an agreement with the Chinese consortium CBC, to which the world also belongs largest producer of lithium-ion batteriesUnpleasant introduce a new method called direct lithium extraction.
It could turn out to be an economic boon. But since colonial times, the legacy of mineral abundance in Bolivia there was also one of pollution, poverty and exploitation. While some residents are hopeful about the potential benefits of the growing lithium industry, others are concerned the local impact of extraction. Direct lithium extraction is particularly demanding fresh waterpossible endangering surrounding ecosystems as has happened in other parts of The “Lithium Triangle” of South America.”
A rapid escalation of lithium mining in the Bolivian Andes also means a looming clash between two fundamentally different conceptions of nature: modern industrial society and that of the Indigenous communities who call the region home – a focus of my current one research collaborations And dissertation project.
Bolivia is home to 36 ethnic groups in the highlands and lowlands. Aymara And Quechua peoples comprise most of the indigenous communities in the Andes Mountains.
For these cultures, nature is not a means to human ends. Instead, it is seen as a group of beings with personality, history, and power beyond the reach of humans. For example, the feminine divinity of fertility, to whom people owe respect, is the Pachamama. Because it sustains and secures the reproduction of life, Andean indigenous people make offerings to the Pachamama in ancestral rituals known as “challas” who try to strengthen their bond with her.
Similarly, highland groups recognize mountains not as a series of inert rocks, but as ancestral guardians Achachilas in Aymara And “Apus” in Quechua. Each Andean community praises a nearby mountain that they believe protects and oversees their lives.
In Uyuni, for example, where one of the two new lithium plants will be built, indigenous communities recognize the presence of these sacred beings. To this day, worshipers in the nearby Lipez region explain the origin of the salt flat with a traditional legend: It is the mother’s milk of their Apu, a female volcano named Tunupa.
However, religious concepts such as “sacred” or “divine” do not necessarily reflect the relationships that the indigenous people of the Andes have long established with these people more than peoplethat have been known since pre-colonial times as “huacas.” These entities are not considered “gods,” nor are they thought to be related to extraterrestrial beliefs. Rather, they are treated as an integral part of people’s earthly daily lives.
For example, for mealsQuechua and Aymara peoples throw coca leaves or spill their drinks on the ground to share their food with these creatures as a sign of gratitude and reciprocity.
In industrial societies, on the other hand, nature is understood something beyond humanity – an object that can be controlled by science and technology. The modern economy makes nature a source of raw materials: morally and spiritually inert matter that exists to be mined and mobilized worldwide. Within this framework, a mineral like lithium is a resource to be developed in the pursuit of economic benefits for people.
In fact, the history of these competing notions is deeply intertwined with the history of the colonial era, as different cultures got into a violent conflict. When the Spaniards discovered the mineral abundance of the so-called New World, such as gold and silver, they began an intensive extraction of its resourcesdependent on forced labor of local people and imported slaves.
The concept of “raw materials” can be traced back to the theological concept “first case.” The term originally comes from Aristotle, whose work was introduced to Christianity through Latin translations around the 12th century. In the way Christians adapted his idea of primary matter, everything was ordered by the level of “perfection”.”, ranging from the lowest level – primary matter, the most basic “stuff” of the world – to rocks, plants, animals, humans, angels and finally God.
The Catholic Church and the Spanish Empire later used this medieval understanding of matter as something passive, without spirit justify the extraction raw materials in colonial times. The closer things came to primary matter, their argument supposed, the more they needed a human imprint and an external purpose to make them valuable.
This term was also used by Christian colonizers bent on destroying traditions they considered idolatrous. To them, reverence for a mountain or the earth itself was nothing more than worshiping a “thing,” a false god. The Church and the Empire believed it to be critical desacralize these more-than-human beings and treat them as mere means.
This flattened view of nature served as the basis for the modern economic concept of raw materials, introduced in the 18th century with the birth of the economy as a social science.
The road ahead
Bolivia’s lithium projects represent another potential clash of worldviews. However, extraction initiatives have faced challenges heavy setbacks in recent years, incl social proteststhe 2019 political crisis And a lack of necessary technology. The Chinese deal represents a new milestoneyet its outcomes are still uncertain: for the economy, for local communities and for the earth.
Today, electric vehicles are widely regarded as part of the solution to the problem climate crisis. Still, they will need it a mining wave Unpleasant meet their battery needs. If societies really want a greener future, technological shifts such as electric cars will be only part of the answer, alongside other changes such as more sustainable urban planning and improved public transport.
But beyond that, perhaps other cultures could learn from the Andes’ relationships with nature as more than human beings: an inspiration for reconsider the development and change our own way of life into something less destructive.