A Lithium Coup d’Etat

This article was originally published in January 2020 in the Echo with slight editorial modifications here.

You’re all set to buy to the latest iPhone or its Android equivalent, the last thing on your mind is the recent overthrow of Bolivia’s government. Why should it be?  

Your phone, like power tools, electric cars, and many other battery-powered technologies, depend on lithium for their energy supply. Being the lightest metal and highly reactive makes lithium a prime candidate for batteries, which are needed to help carry forth the renewable energy revolution now under way. Because the economy is a real thing, this lithium needs to be mined, refined, and transported to production facilities before making its way into your phone or other electric device. So where is it coming from? According to the US Geological Survey, in 2018 (the most recent year data is available) Australia was by far the largest producer of lithium in the world – about 51,000 tonnes, or 60% of global production. However, in terms of estimated resources, Bolivia is believed to hold about 9 million tonnes, second in the world only to Argentina. With the demand for lithium rising, this makes Bolivia a geopolitical hot spot.  


Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Source of lithium and world’s largest salt flat. Source: Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salar_de_Uyuni

On 10 November 2019 Evo Morales, the democratically elected president of Bolivia, was forced to resign under pressure from the military and police. In a recent interview with Glenn Greenwald, Morales stated that he was convinced that what had occurred was ‘a lithium coup d’etat’ and one against him and his party’s economic policies.  

Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president. When he first took office in 2006, Bolivia was one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. Under his government many industries, including lithium, were nationalised, and the profits which would otherwise be sent to private investors abroad, were instead used to eliminate illiteracy and greatly reduce poverty, and expand social, health, and educational programs. This, Morales explained, was ‘our sin’: that the government of an indigenous president would take control of its country’s own resources, and use them for its own development, under its own guidance. ‘Transnational companies are behind the coup. The United States, too, because of the lithium issue’ Morales stated in summary.  

“Think globally, act locally” is a banner frequently flown in the Northern Rivers – you can see it, often literally, at the Channon Market. What might it mean in this case? To begin with, Australia could join the many countries, including Argentina, Mexico, and Uruguay, which have refused to recognise the new Bolivian government, and accept that a coup has occurred, rather than praise the event using newspeak lingo as a great ‘win for democracy’, as the US and Brazil have done. Although the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website still lists Morales as Bolivia’s Head of Government, it does not appear to have taken a clear stand in rejecting the new regime and labelling what has occurred as a coup. A request to clarify Australia’s position was sent to the DFAT, but at the time of writing it had not responded.  

In economic terms, Australia should think about what it does with its own lithium resources, which are estimated to be about 7.7 million tonnes. Currently, all of the lithium which is mined in Australia is exported for downstream refinement and production of consumer goods, including batteries. The only minor exception to this is Tianqi Lithium, which has developed a plant to refine the mined ore into lithium hydroxide – one of the next steps to battery production. Yet this too is then exported. Nationalising this pivotal industry and retaining its profits in public, rather than private, foreign coffers, just as Bolivia did, would contribute to Australia’s common wealth and thereby help fund our own social, health, and educational programs. A 2018 report by the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies deems lithium to have a two trillion-dollar value chain, and suggests that the government take an active role in helping to develop it. It also mentions the potential to create thousands of domestic jobs. This aspect, of an industry which will surely grow, is also important, especially at a time when the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that approximately 30% of young Australians (those aged 15-24 years-old) are either unemployed or underemployed. 

Though there are ecological limits to the size of the economy, investing in domestic production of renewable energy technologies will help limit greenhouse gas emissions and thereby climate change, as well as provide jobs for Australians. At the moment, whether your new mobile is an iPhone or an Android, its batteries are produced elsewhere.