The changing landscape of Bolivia's salt flats

Generations of saleros have scooped salt from the flat, but after the discovery of lithium they fear being left behind.

| | Poverty & Development, Business & Economy, Bolivia, Latin America

Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat. For generations, local salt gatherers - or "saleros" - have extracted salt from the Bolivian flat, scooping the raw mineral into mounds to let it dry before it is transported to processing plants and turned into table salt. But today, the profession is on the brink of extinction as Bolivia is steadily modernising and new sources of income are taking over.

About half of the world's reserves of lithium are buried beneath the Salar. The lightest metal on the periodical table is used in batteries for mobile phones, laptops and electric cars. As the demand for lithium-ion batteries continues to grow, commentators have asked if Bolivia could become "the Saudi Arabia of lithium". President Evo Morales has said the value of lithium is the "hope of humanity".

The discovery of lithium has caused a societal split in Bolivia, particularly in the communities bordering the Salar. As the mining operation grows in size, the new infrastructure it comes with - including electrical lines, water pipelines and paved roads - are transforming the region, aiding other industries including tourism.

While there are many people in the area who long for a more modern lifestyle, some - like the saleros - cannot easily part with their old profession and their connection to the land. For them, it remains to be seen if tradition can co-exist with modernisation. 

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