Bolivia: Where revolutionaries and lithium miners go to die

Miners in Bolivia

Other than being the country where Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara was killed, most North Americans know little about Bolivia.

The landlocked country is surrounded by Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile. Today, it is South America’s poorest nation. But in the 1960s, Bolivia was going to be the launchpad of Che Guevara’s socialist revolution.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara

Che’s legacy

Born in Argentina, Ernesto “Che” Guevara became radicalized by the poverty, hunger and disease he saw while traveling South America as a young medical student. He got involved in social reforms enacted by Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, which were resisted by the United States. When Arbenz was overthrown by a CIA-assisted coup at the behest of the United Fruit Company, Che Guevara began a personal mission to destroy what he saw as the capitalist exploitation of Latin America by the United States.

When Guevara was living in Mexico City, he met Raul and Fidel Castro, joined their 26th of July Movement and sailed to Cuba aboard the yacht Gramma with the intention of ousting US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Guevara rose quickly among the ranks of the insurgents, got promoted to second-in-command to Fidel Castro, and was pivotal in the two-year guerrilla campaign that deposed the Batista regime. He played a number of key roles in the new socialist government.

Guevara left Cuba in 1965 to spread “la revolution” worldwide. For a good read of Che Guevara’s legacy published in 2017, 50 years after his death, read this article in The Guardian. A few colorful paragraphs summarizes what happened to him when he arrived in Bolivia following a failed expedition to the Congo:

The Bolivian recruits resented taking orders from the battle-hardened Cubans, and government propaganda sowed fear of the foreign interlopers among the campesinos. The United States soon got wind of Guevara’s presence and sent CIA agents and military advisers to assist the regime of René Barrientos.

On 31 August an army ambush wiped out half of Che’s forces. The remainder trudged towards the mountains in a desperate attempt to break out of the trap.

Che, prostrated by asthma, rode on a mule towards the remote village of La Higuera. A local farmer informed on them – and amid a frantic gunfight, a bullet destroyed the barrel of Guevara’s carbine. Wounded, he surrendered to a battalion of rangers – trained by US Green Berets – under the command of a 28-year-old captain, Gary Prado.

Don’t shoot – I’m Che. I’m worth more to you alive,” Guevara reportedly said.

In an interview with the Guardian, Prado recalled that moment. “I felt pity because he looked so poor, so tired, so dirty,” said Prado. “You couldn’t feel he was a hero, no way.”

According to Prado, orders came the next day to “get rid of him”.

A 27-year-old army sergeant, Mario Terán, volunteered for the job, and ended Guevara’s life with two bursts of machine-gun fire. After being flown by helicopter to nearby Vallegrande and displayed for the world’s press, Che’s body – minus his hands – and his companions were buried in unmarked graves. They wouldn’t be found for 30 years.

The United States was active in Bolivia during the 1960s, providing finances and training to the military dictatorship. The military controlled Bolivia until 1982, when a Congress was established following a violent coup by General Luis García Meza Tejada. Since then governments have been democratically elected, with three parties predominating.

Current President Evo Morales was the first indigenous Bolivian to serve as head of state. His Movement for Socialism – Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples party was the first to win a presidential majority in four decades, doing so in 2005 and 2009.

Poor Bolivia

As mentioned at the top, Bolivia is poor. An estimated 80% of Bolivians are below the poverty line and 40% live in extreme poverty, largely due to unproductive small-scale farming. There is no mass food production and frequent water shortages. The country also lacks basic infrastructure like water management systems and roads. A major hit to the economy came in the early 1980s when the price of tin collapsed – being one of Bolivia’s most important mined commodities (replacing silver) and sources of income.

According to The Borgen Project, a non-profit focused on poverty and hunger, there are four reasons why the country has failed to succeed economically: political instability, insufficient education, lack of clean water and sanitation, and low productivity in rural areas.

The election of Morales in 2005 was an important development in the nation’s quest to improve the plight of the poor. While the US dismissed Morales as another Hugo Chavez for his spirited anti-capitalist tirades and international push for the legalization of the coco leaf, his success in holding onto power has been a surprise, especially when he won a third term in 2014.

Morales’ popularity has been attributed to higher economic growth (the highest from 2006-14 in 3.5 decades), a 45% boost in social program spending, and a near doubling of the minimum wage, states the Centre for Economic and Policy Research. Poverty has declined from 59% in 2006 to 36% in 2017. Indigenous communities have better access to electricity, water and sewage services.

Like all long-lasting leaders, however, Morales’s support is waning. After 12 years as President, native peoples are turning against him, Reuters asserts in a recent special report, “Angst in the Andes”. The discontent stems from a number of unpopular policies, including developing indigenous lands and a controversial move to consolidate power by ending term limits. Despite the constitution setting a limit of two five-year terms, he convinced the courts to let him run again in 2019. Morales is now the longest-serving head of state in the Americas and the last of a wave of leftist leaders that included Venezuela’s Chavez and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, notes Reuters.

No friend to mining

But Morales’ invincibility at home has not translated into likeability abroad.

He caused widespread consternation in 2006 when he nationalized the country’s oil and gas industry; Bolivia has the second largest natural gas reserves in South America after Venezuela, and an agreement to sell natural gas to Brazil through 2019.

A year after first getting elected, Morales strongly suggested he would nationalize parts of the mining industry. Six years later he confiscated and nationalized a silver and indium mine owned by South American Silver, without paying compensation to its Canadian owners. In 2016 his government announced a crackdown on mining cooperatives after a government official was murdered. The mining sector is dominated by 120,000 miners working in about 1,700 cooperatives.

Major nickel miner Glencore has initiated arbitration proceedings over its investments in two smelters and a tin mine nationalized between 2007 and 2012.

Battery-powered dreams

In 2017 Morales started talking about lithium mining. The country holds vast amounts of the mineral used in mobile phones, power tools and electric cars, but has so far done virtually nothing with it. The more than doubling of the lithium carbonate price between 2010 and 2017 no doubt had the President visualizing dollar signs.

“We will develop a huge lithium industry, over $800 million have already been made available,” Morales told the German DPA news agency.

The biggest step so far came in April, when Bolivia secured a $1.3 billion investment from Germany’s ACI Systems GmbH. The plan is to work with the Bolivian government to develop a lithium battery industry that would generate a billion dollars a year, reports Americas Quarterly.

Last week, Bolivia and ACI announced that ACI will work with state-owned Bolivian Lithium Deposits (YLB) to install four lithium plants in the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s second largest lithium deposit. The joint venture aims to build a lithium processing plant at Uyuni with an initial outlay of $250 million. The plant would produce up to 40,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year, for 70 years, by the end of 2022. (That’s about double the capacity of FMC, the world’s fourth-largest lithium producer, at its Argentina operations).

Bloomberg reports ACI will rely on “new, untested technology” from German company K-UTEC AG Salt Technologies that will produce lithium hydroxide directly from brine, thus speeding up the process.

Eighty percent would be exported to Germany, which is pledging to have a million hybrid or battery-electric vehicles on the road by 2022.

The general manager of YLB told Bloomberg in early December that the company will also start building a $96 million plant with the capacity to produce 18,000 tons of lithium carbonate by early 2020.

But most are skeptical. Americas Quarterly notes that nine years into a pilot plant at its vast Uyuni salt flat, and investing $450 million, the project produces just 10 tons of lithium a month – under 1% of what Argentina and Chile produce every 30 days.

Perhaps most importantly, ACI Systems has no experience mining lithium – a notoriously difficult mineral to extract and process. The industry is dominated by just four players who own nearly all the mines: Albemarle, SQM, FMC, and the latest, Tianqi Lithium. They have the technology and expertise to mine lithium economically. A lack of infrastructure and investor confidence considering Morales’ record on nationalization are also black swans.

Salar de Uyuni

Still, the potential has to be considered. Bolivia is part of the “lithium triangle” with Chile and Argentina, where about 75% of the world’s lithium comes from, given its abundance and high quality. Chile is currently the second largest producer of the main ingredient of lithium-ion batteries installed in electric vehicles, behind only Australia, home to the Greenbushes hard rock lithium and tantalum mine owned by Talison Lithium. Chile produces 70,000 tonnes a year and Argentina 30,000 out of the 230,000- tonne lithium market.

According to the US Geological Survey, the Salar de Uyuni salt flats alone contain 9 million tons of lithium, over a quarter of the world’s known reserves.

If other deposits are added to it, the country may contain half the world’s lithium.

Problems

But having it and mining it are two entirely different things.

The 4,000-square-mile Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and unexploited lithium (Li) deposit. Uyuni is a huge prehistoric lake on a high Andean plateau.

Lithium contained in Bolivian salars are higher in altitude, not as dry, and contain more magnesium (Mg) and potassium than in neighboring Chile, making the extraction process much more complicated, and costly.

Chile and Argentina supply 78% of global lithium carbonate and hold more than 90% of the proven lithium carbonate reserves. The Salar de Uyuni has the lowest average grade of Li at .028 and has an extremely high ratio of Mg/Li at 19.9. At Chile’s Salar de Atacama the rate is 6:1 and at the Hombre Muerto salar in Argentina, it’s 1:1.

The Mg has to be removed by adding slaked lime to the brine. The slaked lime reacts with the magnesium salts and removes them from the water. If the Mg/Li ratio is 1:1 in the original brine, and if slaked lime costs $180/tonne, it costs $180/tonne to produce lithium carbonate. At 20:1 the extra production cost would be $3,600 per tonne. A common industry axiom says that the ratio of Mg to Li in brines must be below the range of 9:1 or 10:1 to be economical.

“It will be expensive to remove the magnesium,” Brian Jaskula, lithium specialist at the US Geological Survey was quoted in an article by Lithium Today.  Also, “altitude, precipitation rate, and evaporation rate are not in Bolivia’s favour if the country adopts Chile’s sun-based evaporation pond route,” he added.

A major factor affecting capital costs is the net evaporation rate – this determines the area of the evaporation ponds necessary to increase the grade of the plant feed. These evaporation ponds can be a major expense. The Salar de Atacama has higher evaporation rates than the world’s other salt plains and evaporation takes place all year long.

Uyuni’s higher rainfall and cooler climate mean that its evaporation rate is not even half that of Chile’s Salar de Atacama, which is ideal for lithium mining because the lithium-containing brine ponds evaporate quickly and the solution is concentrated into lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide used in EV batteries. Bolivia’s rainy season lasts from December to March, converting Uyuni into a lake for parts of the year. Bolivia’s rainfall is about 168mm a year compared to the Atacama’s 15mm.

Though its evaporation rate is only about 72% of Atacama’s, Salar de Hombre Muerte in Argentina is still commercially successful because costs are low and are further offset by the sale of recoverable byproducts like boric acid.

Moreover, the lithium in the Uyuni brine is not very concentrated and the deposits are spread across a vast area.

Bolivia also has limited infrastructure compared to Chile, Argentina or the US, and lacks access to the sea.

Consider also the high “country risk” factor companies face doing business in Bolivia. Morales has nationalized the oil and gas industry, the electricity grid, telecoms, and several mines. Why should he be trusted?

The state doesn’t see ever losing sovereignty over the lithium. Whoever wants to invest in it should be assured that the state must have control of 60% of the earnings.” – Morales at a 2009 press conference

In 1990 hunger strikes and massive protests forced US-based Lithco out of a $46 million investment in Salar de Uyuni. The company set up operations at Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, and eventually became part of FMC.

It’s not surprising that while Chile and Argentina have thriving lithium and potash production, Bolivia lags far behind.

Who wants it?

As for who has the expertise and might be willing to front the billions it would take to develop a lithium industry in Bolivia, at considerable risk, there are only two interested parties: Germany and China. Several companies have tried and failed, including attempts by US-based FMC Corp, which operates in Hombre Muerto, South Korean steel-maker POSCO, and two French companies. Mitsubishi Corp and Sumitomo Corp were also previously involved.

Besides the state-run pilot plant, The Guardian reports just two other projects underway, a lithium carbonate project by German company K-UTEC Ag Salt Technologies and a battery manufacturing plant built by Linyi Dake Trade, a Chinese firm.

China bought Bolivia’s first export of lithium from its pilot plant, 15 tons of lithium carbonate in 2016, more a symbolic shipment than anything that could be built upon. The plant produced just 250 tons this year.

Sydney Morning Herald quotes Joe Lowry, head of Global Lithium and a leading expert on the mineral, on the challenges Bolivia faces in luring potential lithium producers.

“FMC, my former employers, wished to develop Uyuni in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” he said. “But the governmental chaos and poor infrastructure were too much too deal with. Argentina ultimately got chosen. Thirty years later Bolivia still lacks both infrastructure and the sort of government investors can be comfortable with.”

Another lithium authority, Chris Berry of research firm House Mountain Partners LLC, was equally skeptical, telling Bloomberg, “Bolivia is quite frankly very risky relative to other parts of the world for lithium investment. Investors are concerned with both return on capital and return of capital.”

Conclusion

In the risky but potentially very rewarding world of resource investing, two well-worn terms are “country risk” and “resource nationalism”. Most experienced investors steer well clear of countries with even a whiff of either. Bolivia has both, in spades. Being a poor country, it’s understandable that its current President, Evo Morales, would do what he can to alleviate the sad legacy of poverty. In developing countries though, the easiest targets are the rich: wealthy, powerful people and companies within Bolivia, and foreign companies that want to come in and strike deals.

But foreign companies have targets on their backs for people like Morales. It’s just too tempting, when the government runs short of funds, to tap a foreign, rich corporation. If Bolivia gets into lithium mining, there’s no reason to believe Morales won’t expropriate and nationalize, as he has done many times.

Then there’s the technical challenges of mining lithium. Bolivia’s salars are too low in elevation, meaning too much rain, the evaporation rate is too low, and the magnesium to lithium ratios are too high. This makes it extremely challenging for any company to mine lithium at a profit. The costs are simply too high and the grades too low. If somebody had the technology to make it work in Bolivia, it would have happened by now. Bolivia’s vast lithium reserves are no secret. The inevitable conclusion: this dog won’t hunt. Save your hard-earned investing dollars for one that will.

I continue to hold Cypress Development Corp. (TSX-V:CYP) for its Clayton Valley Lithium Project which is due to release a prefeasibility study early in the new year. Visit my home page for lots of background and stay tuned for news on CYP.

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 Richard Mills has based this document on information obtained from sources he believes to be reliable but which has not been independently verified.

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Richard owns shares of Cypress Development Corp (TSX.V:CYP). CYP is an advertiser on his site aheadoftheherd.com

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