Bolivia pushes for Latin America-wide lithium policy

Most lithium is produced in South America, Australia and China. (Image of Bolivia’s Salar Uyuni: Flickr.)

Bolivia’s government is calling on its lithium-producing neighbours to forge ahead with the idea of setting a Latin America-wide policy on the exploitation of the coveted battery metal.

The idea, part of a broader initiative involving Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile to form an OPEC-like cartel, seeks to collectively boost the bargaining power of these countries, President Luis Arce said in a speech in La Paz.

“We must be united in the market, in a sovereign manner, with prices that benefit our economies, and one of the ways, already proposed by (Mexico’s) President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is to think of a kind of lithium OPEC,” Arce said, local paper La Razon reported.

Bolivia holds the world’s largest lithium resources at 21 million tonnes, according to the US Geological Survey. The area of sprawling salt flats known as the “lithium triangle”, which includes northern Chile and Argentina, has about 65% of the globe’s known resources of the white metal.

If Peruvian, Mexican and Brazilian potential reserves were added, the region would hold nearly 70% of the world’s lithium reserves. This would translate into a restructuring of the world economic scenario around the energy transition and a provide a new, sound source of income for Latin American economies, according to the Latin American Strategy Centre for Geopolitics (CELAG).

Bolivia, which has almost no industrial production or commercially viable reserves, inked in January a deal with a consortium that includes Chinese battery giant CAT to jointly extract lithium from its Uyuni and Oruro salt flats.

The partnership would give the group of companies, which also includes mining giant CMOC, rights to develop two lithium plants.

Arce, who wants to industrialize Bolivia’s lithium before the end of his term in 2025, expressed concern about foreign meddling in the lithium business, particularly from the United States.

“We don’t want our lithium to be in the Southern Command’s crosshairs, nor do we want it to be a reason for destabilizing democratically elected governments or foreign harassment,” he said.

Chile, Argentina and Bolivia have been talking about creating a lithium cartel since July last year. They now seek to integrate other Latin American nations with an incipient lithium industry, including Brazil and Mexico.

Analysts, including Geopolitical Monitor’s Arman Sidhu, believe that bringing the idea to fruition is likely to spark opposition from environmentalists and indigenous groups that contributed to left-wing victories in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. 

He also warned of additional obstacles, including China’s monopolist position in the industry, investors’ fears and the long-term political viability of such an idea.