But Francisco Quisbert says those worried investors have it all wrong. The 65-year-old, with cobwebbed skin weathered dark brown by years on the flats, is called "Comrade Lithium" by the president. From a small, sparse office in Uyuni, the largest town in the region, Quisbert leads Fructas, a union of campesino salt gatherers and farmers.

When Morales pushed through a new constitution last year, Quisbert made sure it included a provision giving Indians control of natural resources in their ancestral areas. "The reason we reject much foreign investment is they never give back to the community. They only take," Quisbert says. "We dream of a project owned by Bolivia that gives back to the people."

Quisbert recalls that in the early '90s, an American-owned company named Lithco tried to negotiate a 30-year contract for rights to water, minerals, and lithium as well as other resources. The agreement would even have voided the usual 13 percent tax on foreign contracts. "We got together all the other unions from around the country. We blocked streets; we went on strike," he says. "Finally, they said, 'We're going to leave,' and went to Argentina."

Cliff Rassweiler built a lithium-powered race car in suburban Miami.
C. Stiles
Cliff Rassweiler built a lithium-powered race car in suburban Miami.
Marcelo Castro leads construction on a $6 million lithium plant in Bolivia.
Noah Friedman-Rudovsky
Marcelo Castro leads construction on a $6 million lithium plant in Bolivia.

That scenario might repeat if another foreign company tries the same thing, Quisbert says.

This, of course, scares off foreign investors. So does Bolivia's listing in a recent Corruption Perceptions Index by a nonprofit called Transparency International. The nation ranked 120th, tied with Ethiopia and Kazakhstan.

"I wouldn't invest a dime in that country with a crazy leader like Morales running the show and nationalizing everything," says Michael LoCascio, a senior analyst at Lux Research, a New York advisory firm. "You would never see your money again."

The lithium plant's leaders say those fears are unfounded. Morales isn't looking to build the state coffers, but to run a transparent operation, they say.

It's still early, but Bolivia has already fallen behind. Most of the world's lithium today comes from across the border, in Chile's desert corner of the salt flats, or farther south in Argentina.

Two of the three major world lithium producers — including the American firm Rockwood Holdings — produce the metal in Chile's Atacama Desert. Rockwood has a modern plant, dorms for workers, and high-quality roads leading to nearby ports. What's more, the Chilean reserves sit at sea level in one of the driest climates on Earth, which means conditions are perfect for extracting the mineral.

By contrast, the flats have no roads and are 12,000 feet above sea level. Then there are the technical challenges. "Right now, the technology to turn our brine into lithium doesn't exist," admits Guillermo Roelants, the Belgian engineer. "It's extremely rich in lithium but difficult to extract because of the other minerals in the brine."

Chambi, for his part, is skeptical. Though he has formed a group of young salt harvesters to push for progress, he's not sure they'll hold sway.

"The [local people] don't really want change, because they fear it," Chambi says, waving away some flies that have come through his open back door. "There are already simple ways to improve our lives, but our [town's] leaders won't allow it. They'd rather line their pockets with money."

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To see Evo Morales's vision for lithium firsthand, head for a 12-story building in La Paz's small financial district. The shabby gray tower once housed Banco Boliviano Americano but was recently taken over by bureaucrats. Ride a shaky elevator toward the top and you'll find part of the headquarters of Comibol, Morales's reborn state mining company.

Guillermo Roelants occupies a paper-strewn corner office with wide views of the steep, house-covered canyon hillsides that frame the Bolivian capital. Roelants, who speaks with a thick French accent, says Morales's goals have been distorted.

"We don't want to be like the Saudi Arabia of lithium," Roelants says, looking chagrined. "We won't be arbitrarily setting prices or wielding power, but providing a needed resource to the world."

The truth, in fact, probably lies somewhere between Morales's grand visions and investors' fears. It will be at least a few years before Bolivia has the infrastructure to compete in the world lithium market, and no one knows for sure what demand will look like by then. But in the meantime, the mineral has boosted two national resources as scarce as gold: hope and optimism.

"These benefits will change the whole country, the Uyuni region, and every town there," Roelants says. "And we'll benefit the world... by securing the transformation of the auto industry away from fossil fuels."

Roelants knows it will be a long road. The first phase of the nation's lithium plant, he explains, is still at least a year away from opening. And that tiny operation will be only a pilot plant to demonstrate the feasibility of pulling lithium from the flats.

In early 2014, a larger, $400 million upgrade of the plant should be complete, and large quantities of both lithium carbonate — the basic ingredient used to refine lithium for dozens of applications — and potassium chloride, a byproduct used in fertilizers, should begin appearing in reasonably large quantities.

Morales hopes revenues from the potassium, which Brazil has already promised to buy, and lithium carbonate can help fund an ultimate $800 million project.

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