January 15, 1493 Columbus set sail for Spain from Hispaniola, ending his first voyage to the New World.  We usually commemorate his arrival and “discovery” of the new world, but let’s take a moment to reflect on the globalizing forces that were set in motion once he returned to the “old world” five hundred and twenty years ago.  If we recall, the reason he was granted the financing for this expedition, was his promise to return with riches that would allow Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand to rid Jerusalem of infidels – a struggle they were losing against the Ottoman empire at the time.  The riches that returned in the wake of Columbus’s trips included sugar – a luxury consumption item for Europe at the time – and of course, minerals like gold and silver, amongst other important goods.  This was the first time in history that a society was created to produce commodities for foreign consumption, experiments had occurred in the Azores with the first sugar plantations and slavery, but they did not match the scale of what was created in the “new world”.

So what is happening with the natural resources of the “new world” these days?  Are they still being produced/mined for foreign consumption?  Are the global trade patterns merely a replica of what was created after Columbus’s first voyage home?

I recently watched an episode of The Nature of Things, entitled David Suzuki’s Andean Adventure, where he explores two of the smallest countries in South America – Ecuador and Bolivia – and what Suzuki calls a “new” way of managing resources.  “Both Ecuador and Bolivia are carrying out radical experiments, forging new paths towards what they call “Living Well”. Inspired in part by the indigenous peoples of the Andes, these new paths are an enormous undertaking, with enormous consequences for both countries and for the world.”

In Ecuador, Suzuki visits the groups that are working to stop the oil drilling in a biodiverse area of the country.  But of course, I was more interested with his visit to Bolivia.   In Bolivia, Suzuki explores the Uyuni salt flats and the lithium locked underneath this ancient dried-up ocean bed.  (If you look at the picture in the header of the CCIB Solutions Blog page, you will see a photo of the Uyuni salt flats)  He interviews salt farmers who are currently trying to eek out a living and they share their aspirations that their children someday attend university.  He also interviews the people working on a nationally owned and operated lithium processing plant.  The objective is to be the world’s largest provider of lithium for electric cars that will make use of the lithium in their batteries.  Analysts put Bolivia’s lithium reserves at 5.4m tonnes, compared with 3.3m in Chile and 2.7m in Argentina.

Have you had a chance to see this episode of The Nature of Things?  Do you think it’s possible for Bolivia to move beyond Galeano’s description of “a beggar sitting on a king’s throne” to Suzuki’s “Saudi Arabia of Lithium”?  Can Bolivia develop lithium expertise alone, or should it invite foreign investment?


To see more articles related to this topic, see the links below:

Can Bolivia become a green energy superpower? – The Guardian

Lithium Dreams – The New Yorker

Bolivia opens first lithium plant on edge of Uyuni salt flats – LA Times

Bolivia holds key to electric car future – BBC