For the past two years, Castro, who's in his late 40s, has worked nonstop through weekends and holidays in a dusty corner of the Salar de Uyuni. He pushes a crew to complete three half-finished buildings clustered beneath a rough cliff. Since he moved here, the Bolivian hasn't seen his wife and two grown children, who live in La Paz. When you're trying to chart your nation's future, those sacrifices come with the job.

"This plant is my girlfriend now," Castro says. "Between family and country, without exaggeration, it's country. What we're working on here is more than a plant for lithium; it's a chance to alter the whole mentality of Bolivia."

For Castro and the other true believers in President Evo Morales's government, the $6 million plant is the first step toward entering the world economy, building wealth in an impoverished nation, and changing history.

Lithium comes from brine that flows beneath the flats.
Noah Friedman-Rudovsky
Lithium comes from brine that flows beneath the flats.

For hundreds of years, Bolivia's natural resources have brought little more than pain and suffering. Though the nation possesses considerable treasures — including the second-largest natural gas reserves on the continent and a host of minerals — 60 percent of the country lives below the poverty line. The average Bolivian earns about $80 a week. In the silver mines of Potosí — which the Spanish began exploiting more than 400 years ago — many miners die from lung disease within 15 years of starting work.

President Morales, an Aymara Indian leader, aims to change that. He swept onto the scene in 2003, after then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada tried to sell the nation's natural gas reserves to foreign companies for export. Indigenous leaders blockaded roads to protest the deal, and Sánchez de Lozada retaliated with military force. More than 60 people ended up dead in the resulting conflict, which Bolivians now call Octubre Negro (Black October).

Morales, who led a union of coca farmers, helped spearhead protests and eventually became president in 2006 after Sánchez de Lozada fled to the United States and his successor was run out of office. The new president quickly nationalized some resources and restarted the state-owned mining company, Comibol.

So when Morales asked Marcelo Castro and a Bolivian-based Belgian engineer named Guillermo Roelants to work on the lithium project, they were enthusiastic. "We want to develop a national enterprise, which is very different from a private company," Castro says. "The old way was to deceive, bribe, and demand. The new way of thinking is to change the relationship with the communities."

Eventually, Morales hopes, lithium profits can be spread across the country in public works projects and education programs. For now, his government focuses on winning popular support from impoverished residents around the Salar de Uyuni with the promise of better water, more electricity, and improved health services. "We're going to change the basic mentality by giving these towns the resources they need to produce goods and improve their lives," Castro says.

To demonstrate, Castro maneuvers his Land Cruiser along the rocky track leaving the plant and then downshifts to rocket over the pancake-smooth salt flats. Twenty minutes later, as he passes through Rio Grande, a town of a few thousand Quechua Indians just south of the plant, he slows near a dusty courtyard, where a young mother and her children wash clothes using a hand-drawn pump.

"How is the water?" he asks in Spanish. The mother smiles and waves.

Rio Grande had no potable water until the government's lithium project built a line from a well last year. Castro drives 15 minutes south along brutal, unpaved roads to the source, a small well with an electric pump. An elderly Quechua couple emerge smiling from their mud-brick home at the base of a nearby hill. They show off a small irrigated patch of quinoa, potatoes, and ava, a local bean.

"It's the first time anyone has grown anything out here," says Genara Huayllani, who moved from Rio Grande to the small farm with her husband, Germán. "Before, it was impossibly dry."

Hundreds of similar small projects will transform the flats, according to Castro. "Lithium can light the way toward the changes these people need," he says.


Moises Chambi lives behind a corrugated metal door on a side street in Colchani, a somnambulant desert town where stray dogs outnumber residents on the unpaved roads. His family has lived here for generations, earning money by excavating salt and selling it. Eighty percent of Colchani's 1,000 or so villagers do the same.

Chambi, his wife Nelvi, and their two children share a single 10-by-30-foot room, just enough space for two double beds facing each other. The house doesn't have water or heat.

Like everyone in Colchani, he has heard about the lithium plant slowly rising on the other side of the flats. But no water or health projects have made it here so far, and he can't see how the plant will improve his family's lot. "They need to clean up our town, to pave the streets and give us the basic things first," he says. "We need better electricity, because it's too weak. And we need clean water very badly."

Indigenous leaders and local residents are demanding more for people such as Chambi, and this creates a balancing act for President Morales, who must find a way to include the natives in the profits without scaring off foreign investors.

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