This metal is powering today's technology—at what price?

As demand soars for powerful batteries, Bolivia dreams of striking it rich by tapping its huge lithium deposit. But will its people benefit?

While the indigenous Aymara population harvests and sells salt crusted on the surface of the Salar de Uyuni salt flat, the much more lucrative lithium is dissolved in brine found deep underground.

One early Saturday morning in La Paz, Álvaro García Linera, the vice president of Bolivia, greets me in the spacious salon outside his office overlooking Plaza Murillo. The debonair, silver-haired 56-year-old politician is known in his country as a committed Marxist ideologue. But today he presents himself as a capitalist pitchman.

The pitch in question involves lithium. García Linera speaks of his country’s natural resource in a simultaneously factual and awestruck way. Lithium, essential to our battery-fueled world, is also the key to Bolivia’s future, the vice president assures me. A mere four years hence, he predicts, it will be “the engine of our economy.” All Bolivians will benefit, he continues, “taking them out of poverty, guaranteeing their stability in the middle class, and training them in scientific and technological fields so that they become part of the intelligentsia in the global economy.”

But as the vice president knows, no pitch about lithium as Bolivia’s economic salvation is complete without addressing the source of that lithium: the Salar de Uyuni. The 4,000-square-mile salt flat, one of the country’s most magnificent landscapes, will almost certainly be altered—if not irreparably damaged—by mining the resource underneath it.

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