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Moises Chambi needs only two tools to survive on the world's largest salt flat: a wooden-handled pickax and a shovel beaten into a worn fold. The 23-year-old with sun-darkened skin, prominent cheekbones, and a quick, sarcastic smile grunts softly as he repeatedly slams his ax into the parched earth of Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni. As the sun sinks behind mountains floating over the unbroken white plain, he shovels gleaming chunks of salt into waist-high pyramids to dry.
His native Quechua tribe has used the same method for hundreds of years to eke out a living in a remote corner of South America's poorest nation. Campesinos bartered the salt they hauled out on llama caravans for cash, food, and water.
Chambi does the same today, but he uses a battered pickup truck instead of a llama to support his wife, 3-year-old Michael, and baby Christian.
"I don't want my children to have this life," Chambi says, wiping his brow. "It's very hard on your lungs, on your kidneys to work like this every day. I want them to go to school. I want them to have a profession."
Now, for the first time in centuries, change could actually be on the way. Companies from around the world are jockeying for a piece of the untapped fortune beneath Chambi's feet.
Almost half the lithium in the world — 5.4 million tons of it, according to the U.S. Geological Survey — lies in the briny water that courses under Bolivia's salt flats. International speculators, from Mitsubishi to French industrialist Vincent Bolloré, believe lithium batteries will replace today's greenhouse gas-emitting, enviro-killing fossil fuels. They have set up shop in La Paz while investors in South Florida and New York closely monitor developments.
Earlier this month, Toyota introduced a lithium-powered car at the Detroit Auto Show. Everyone from Nissan to Ford to GM has models in the works, with local dealerships likely to begin selling some in the next year or two. U.S. taxpayers, too, have a major stake in lithium's success. One of the largest payouts from President Barack Obama's federal stimulus package — for $299 million — went to build America's first plant to churn out lithium-ion car batteries.
If Bolivia can fill the soon-to-skyrocket demand for lithium, South Florida in particular stands to benefit as the crossroads for Latin American commerce.
But corruption is rife in the landlocked nation, and leftist President Evo Morales is bent on consolidating state control. Some observers doubt Bolivia will find a way to export its massive reserves to an energy-hungry world. Indigenous leaders have already made it clear that crippling protests might happen if foreign investors gain control over the lithium industry. And the technical challenges of getting the metal from the salt flats, which sit more than 12,000 feet above sea level in a sparsely populated wasteland, are mind-bending.
"These reserves are going to be a multibillion-dollar enterprise that could change the face of Bolivia as we embrace alternative fuels," says Bruce Bagley, an expert on Bolivia at the University of Miami. "But the country also has a long and well-earned history of resentment toward foreign investment. There are no sure bets there."
Adds Chambi: "The lithium could change our lives, sure. But nothing the [village leaders have] done has ever helped us before. Why should we trust in this?"
A sleek dark-green Subaru Impreza has been completely gutted except for a blue roll-cage wedged in front. It is perched on blocks inside a neat garage in an industrial park near the Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport.
When the car is reassembled, every spare inch will be packed with 96 lithium batteries in cooling racks that look like computer servers.
The empty frame might not look like much at the moment. But just a few years ago, Cliff Rassweiler, a mid-40s, rail-thin speed racer with Clint Eastwood's deep cheek wrinkles and a competitor's gleam in his eyes, made semipro racing history in the car.
Today, he's certain lithium-battery-powered vehicles like his prototype won't be just a historical footnote. "Eventually, we'll all be racing electric cars because we'll all be driving electric cars," Rassweiler says. "It's not going to happen quickly, but yeah, it's already happening."
The story of Rassweiler's astoundingly successful quest in suburban Miami to make a lithium-battery electric racer — with minimal technical support — shows just how much potential the technology has to revolutionize the automotive industry.
In 2000, he and a partner, a wiry, affable race car company owner named James Lee, quit a decade of pro racing to take up a new challenge: becoming the first team to win a sanctioned race in an electric-powered car.
The first problem: After cracking open the history books, they realized it was done a century ago. "That was a bit of a shock," Rassweiler says, laughing.
A mustached driver in a boater's hat named A. L. Riker won a race at Providence, Rhode Island's Narragansett Park in September 1896. He piloted an open-roof buggy running on lead-acid batteries. Back then, electric cars were as common as vehicles that ran on gasoline.
"Gas-powered cars won out eventually because electricity was scarce outside of the major cities," Rassweiler says.
The industry flirted with electric cars a few times, notably during the gas crisis of the 1970s. The phenomenon got a boost in the early '90s, when California passed a law mandating that car companies peddle electric models. In 1996, GM introduced the EV1, a lead-acid battery-powered car that could travel up to 100 miles on a charge. About 800 were leased over the next two years, but when the courts struck down the law, GM recalled them. Activists for years have accused the company of spiking the program to appease Big Oil, as depicted in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?
Rassweiler started work soon after the EV1's failure. The Connecticut native had begun racing competitively in 1989, bouncing between Formula 2000 (the equivalent of Triple A ball for Formula 1) and various other race circuits. He won often enough to keep sponsors and make a living.
But by the turn of the century, both he and partner Lee, a Miami native who won several semipro championships in the '80s, were tiring of the same old competition. "We didn't know much about electric cars, but we loved the challenge," Rassweiler says.
Eventually, the pair found a sponsor — Korean electric battery maker Kokam — and slogged their way through design challenges. Lithium batteries weren't made for race cars, and the team struggled to fit enough of them to last through a race without weighing down the car. On more than one racetrack, Rassweiler ended up bailing out as smoke billowed from overheated batteries.
But on the last weekend of 2007, Rassweiler steered the quiet, lithium-powered Impreza — which they'd nicknamed the "Electric Imp" — around the final turn at Moroso Motorsports Park in Palm Beach County and took the checkered flag. Reaching speeds of more than 100 mph in the emission-free electric car, he beat a dozen other conventional gas-powered racers. As far as Rassweiler and his buddies know, it was the first officially sanctioned electric car victory on a closed course against gas competitors since Riker's 19th-century feat.
"That was a great feeling," Lee remembers. "But we had to work a long, long time to get there."
Next up: the wider automotive industry. The Toyota Prius — the first commercially successful hybrid electric/gas car in the States — began selling in 2000. Last year, more than 1.2 million Priuses were sold, and virtually every U.S. automaker had its own hybrid. Sales are about 3.6 percent of the U.S. market, the highest share ever, according to Hybrid Cars, an industry publication.
Most hybrids use nickel-metal hydride batteries, which are cheaper to make but much heavier and less efficient than the lithium-ion type. Now the world looks poised to shift to lithium cells — and possibly to fully electric cars.
Lithium batteries already power laptops and cell phones. The element is the lightest, least dense metal on Earth. It comes from either brine — like that found under the Bolivian salt flats — or rock formations. The brine is much cheaper to process.
Until now, lithium batteries have been too expensive to mass-produce and sell in cars because they cost hundreds of dollars per cell. Safety issues, including a tendency to overheat when taxed, have also slowed the technology.
But Nissan plans to release the first all-lithium, zero-emission family car — called the Leaf — in the United States later this year. It will be priced "in the range of other typical family sedans," the firm says. BMW is test-driving a lithium-powered Mini Cooper in the States, and Ford is developing a lithium-battery Focus to be released in 2011. The Detroit automaker recently signed a deal with Johnson Controls, which last year earned a $299 million federal stimulus grant to build a lithium-battery plant in Holland, Michigan.
By next year, local dealers might have lithium-battery cars on display. Just last month, Tesla — a boutique California firm that sells all-electric $100,000 roadsters — opened its first Florida shop, in Dania Beach. And Fisker Automotive is taking orders for cars that should arrive later this year at the Warren Henry Automobiles dealership in North Miami-Dade.
Downtown Miami now even has its first electric vehicle recharging station, sponsored by the nonprofit Florida Electric Auto Association. It was installed not long ago near NE 15th Street and North Bayshore Drive.
"These batteries are getting lighter and smaller all the time, which is key for making these kinds of vehicles commercially viable," says Jennifer Moore, a spokeswoman for Ford.
Lithium, in turn, is about to become much more valuable. For the past decade, demand for the mineral has grown by 5 percent a year, according to a report by New Jersey-based Rockwood Holdings, the largest U.S. lithium producer. "Demand is only going to get higher, and markets are only going to get more interested in lithium in the next five years," says Erasto Almeida, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, a risk consulting firm.
The question, of course, is where all of that lithium will come from.
A little before noon, Marcelo Castro navigates a battered Toyota Land Cruiser down a bumpy dirt road and parks in front of his life's work. When he takes off his hardhat, his curly hair juts out at all angles like Sideshow Bob. With his full, fleshy face and bright red T-shirt, he could pass for Hugo Chávez's younger, fitter cousin.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
If everything goes as planned, the final, refined lithium metal used in batteries will be created on-site. Another plant, to produce batteries — and perhaps even a factory to make electric cars — will stand nearby. "We've had no shortage of interest from investors," Roelants says. "And we are open to partners in the final phase of this project. But we've made it clear that Bolivia will have at least a 51 percent stake in that work."
Roelants knows the skeptics are numerous.
No one debates that Bolivia's lithium reserves are huge, but the combined technical, political, and economic challenges might be too large for the country to overcome. Some analysts say the Chilean and Argentine reserves alone might be enough to supply a global lithium-vehicle market.
"My view is that the rising cost of lithium right now is all speculative and won't pan out in the long run," says LoCascio, the senior analyst. "These cars are never going to be a big niche in the market."
But Rassweiler, the Miami racing pioneer, disagrees. He's working today in his Kendall garage to rebuild the Electric Imp, his history-making electric racer.
With Lee, he has repackaged the lithium batteries in cooler, longer aluminum shells so they can complete longer races without overheating.
Rassweiler is encouraged by the big automakers' turn toward lithium, but he has doubts about the amount of time it will take to make the technology affordable. The future, in Miami and around the world, includes a lot of lithium, he says.
"We may still be a long way off," he says, "but this is going to happen."
Thousands of Bolivians hope he's right.
Alejandra Landivar and Jean Friedman-Rudovsky contributed to this piece. The story was produced on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship directed by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.