As the world attempts to quench its insatiable thirst for smartphones and other technological gadgets, there is one element that has become an export that nations are attempting to exploit in order to fuel their economies. The element lithium is a key component of electronic devices and the batteries that power them. Three of the four largest lithium producing countries in 2012 were developing countries: Argentina, Chile, and China. But the nation Bolivia sits on so much lithium that it has been called a potential "Saudi Arabia of lithium."
The developing nation of Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America, contains enormous amounts of the world's lithium reserves, estimated at at least 50% of the world reserves. The lithium reserves are concentrated under Salar de Uyuni, a 10,000 square kilometer enclosed salt flat that is an internationally renowned environmental treasure.
It has been said that Bolivia could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium" in the future, as demand for lithium is expected to heavily increase thanks to the mass adaptation of electric cars and the rise of mobile electronics such as iPhones.
Salar de Uyuni is an internationally-known tourist destination as well as a sensitive ecosystem. Improper mining techniques could ruin the landscape completely. The local population blocked several attempts at foreign exploitation of the minerals, believing that money would not filter down to local communities and they would extract the minerals without regards for the environment.
The government of Evo Morales opened a state-owned plant to begin lithium production in January with the support of the local population. It is expected to be a long process due to the remoteness of Salar de Uyuni and the lack of infrastructure.
As for the environment, it remains to be seen how exploitation of the lithium reserves will affect it. The tension between economic development through natural resources and its effect on the environment has often had tragic consequences for the environment in the name of development. Time will tell if Bolivia can avoid the tragic circumstances that have befallen other nations.