Visions in the Salt: Trading Past and Future in Bolivia

The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Photo by Shruti Bhat

The North Carolina Latin American Film Festival wrapped up last week after six weeks of showings around the Triangle. Duke and UNC have hosted most of the films (most of which have been free), with a few movies playing elsewhere around Durham and Chapel Hill. Earlier this month, I took a quick break from exam prep and lab reports to watch a documentary that had caught my attention in ads around campus: Salero, a film centered on the otherworldly Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, and the push to extract the enormous lithium deposits that lie beneath it.

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world – so large that NASA and other space agencies sometimes calibrate the instruments on orbiting satellites using its bright, water-smoothed surface. It’s commonly repeated that Neil Armstrong mistook the salar for a glacier from space, for obvious reasons:

Created using imagery from Google Earth

Dr. Dalia Patino-Echeverri, a professor of energy policy at the Nic School, spoke briefly before the film began, noting that it highlights the “inevitable tradeoffs” that come with choosing any power source. Lithium is an essential component in modern batteries and a focal point in the conversation around how to develop stable renewable energy on a global scale. Salero, then, is a tiny window into the momentous forces that shape and reshape the economy and the earth, and of people swept up in those changes, willingly or not.

The film begins its temporal cross section through the Bolivian landscape around 2010 in Colchani, a town at the edge of the salar (purportedly founded at the site of a train collision along the nearby railroad). There we meet Moises, one of the last saleros, who makes his living by harvesting salt with a pickaxe from the endless expanse of the flat. He and his brother work together to scrape, dry and mill the salt, then sell it in nearby cities.

Moises tells us he was born on the salar and intends to die there; he smiles when his son says “salero” when asked what he wants to be when he grows up. But his wife Nelvi is frustrated with the quietude and isolation of their life in Colchani. She has dreams of working as a hairdresser, opening a bakery in Chile – maybe anything, we come to understand, as long as it is somewhere else.

We then see President Evo Morales give a speech on a platform set up in the salar, as the media chatterati of a dozen world powers speculate that Bolivia could become “the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century” if the country plays its cards right. Bolivia will attempt to build extraction plants on the flat face of the salar, thought to house the largest deposit of lithium in the world. Folk dancers perform for the cameras under the rainbow checkered flag of the Andean indigenous groups that largely brought Morales into office. Moises looks on, expression unreadable.

The movie doesn’t mention that this is the second time that large-scale lithium mining has been planned on the salar. In 1990s President Zamora tried to sell rights to the deposits to what’s now F.M.C. Corporation, with a return of only 8% of the mining profits to Bolivia. The resulting outrage at the continued transfer of mineral wealth out of the the country killed the deal, with F.M.C. turning to Argentina instead. This time, Morales has promised that the mining will be entirely controlled by Bolivia, and entirely to the benefit of the Bolivian people. In 2010, the likelihood of this coming to pass is in serious question, given the hesitation of multinational corporations to partner technically with a country that had recently nationalized many of its resources.

Then we are introduced to Marcelo Castro, the head engineer of the first pilot lithium plant developed on the salar. He is set with the task of digging huge evaporation pits and constructing buildings on the soft, soluble, sometimes living surface of the salt.

Photo by Shruti Bhat

The counterpoint between the story of Moises and that of Marcelo drives much of the film, though the two are rarely (if ever) shown interacting directly. Marcelo espouses his vision of a Bolivia blossoming, rising in the world, shaking off the yoke of colonial history and dependency to step into its rightful place of leadership in a new, modern century. Moises, meanwhile, meditates on the spread of the extractive paradigm, a global economy fueled by the disturbing desire for always more, and on the irresistible transformation of the way of life he has worked so hard to keep. With vivid but delicate poetry, he both grieves and embraces the growing understanding that he will never give to his young sons the life, and the love of the land, that his own father gave to him.

I should make it clear that the film presents neither man as a caricature. Each man serves as a foil to the other, but maintains a nuanced views of the changes occurring around him. The engineer expresses a deep love of the salar’s ethereal landscape; he speaks of it with as much wonder and eloquent reverence as his salero counterpart, even while praising the value of its degradation to his country’s advancement. And we watch the salero adapting to the needs of his family and the rules of the times, dropping his axe and outfitting his rusty truck with special equipment to harvest salt faster – trying to make enough money for his wife to go to school and build her dreams, as his own dreams begin to dissolve.


Photo by Shruti Bhat

During the rainy season, the entire surface of the salar becomes a mirror – sometimes doubling the sky into a wild Rorschach blot of clouds and brilliant blue, other times engulfing the viewer entirely in the hazy rhythms of the Milky Way. The film periodically pulls us into these images, removing us from the concrete forms and set rules of the world, economic or otherwise. Over dreamlike scenes like these, Moises speaks of a suspected encounter with the Devil on the salt flat, of his dream of a car collision that later came true, of the area’s bloody history of colonial mining, of other ways the future could be.

Mining often creates a series of painful paradoxes for the countries that engage in it – even in the places where armed conflict and activist murders don’t enter into the equation. Who benefits from the wealth drawn from the ground? Who bears the other costs of that production, like water turned toxic and entire mountains gone? Early in the film, Moises tells us that Colchani sits only miles from the legendary silver mine of Cerro Rico in Potosí, which bankrolled the dramatic rise of the Spanish Empire by means of the brutal and deadly enslavement of thousands of people; after the silver ran out, the surrounding area fell into some of the deepest poverty on the continent. Centuries later, President Morales promises not only that the lithium will benefit Bolivia, but that Bolivia will ultimately tap into the whole process of refining and battery production, enriching the country and bringing jobs. But the image of Potosí, the lingering threat of how the “resource curse” can unfold, haunts the film.

The final question of any extraction venture is rarely asked at the beginning, when the new endeavor is touted as the wave that a people or country will ride forever into the future: what happens when the minerals run out, or the economy moves on to a cheaper commodity? A world away from the salar, coal towns in Appalachia have spent the last few decades grappling with what happens when that wave recedes. Entire states reoriented themselves for generations, putting coal mining at the center of their lives and communities. Since the 1980s, they have seen their economic foundations crack and crumble as devastatingly efficient mountaintop removal tanked employment and ravaged landscapes; in the last decade the industry has declined further in the face of dirt cheap natural gas – and, increasingly, renewables. The rise of lithium extraction in South America, by making batteries ever cheaper, may speed the decline of coal.

For all the sense of wrenching personal loss that comes from watching Moises’s way of life transform against his wishes, the story told in Salero is one of the happier stories of mining conflict – at least so far. The psychedelic nature of the landscape allows some residents to pivot toward providing tourist services, as their old industry fades away. And the changes that occur are shown as entirely orchestrated by the market’s invisible hand, not by hands holding guns.

The film is paced like the tides, slowly swelling across years in the life of Moises and his family, Marcelo and his growing operation, weaving in and out of the surreal visuals of the salar, until suddenly we realize that change has already come to Colchani. The town and the salt flat and its future trajectory are already fundamentally, irrevocably different.

By the final moments of the film, Moises is no longer a salero, and reacts with a gentle but pained disapproval when his son says again that he wishes to someday become a salero himself. Moises now transports construction materials with his truck while his wife seeks work abroad, preparing to move the family away from Colchani. The tourists come by the dozens to his brother Nico’s new hotel, taking Instagram-ready photos on the backs of large llama statues carved from the salt itself.

Photo by Shruti Bhat

The story of the Salar de Uyuni isn’t over. A small part of the flat is under extraction at the moment; the same question marks that hang over every mining venture hang over Uyuni, as do the questions that will drive the future of the solar and wind industries.

Extraction in and of itself isn’t the problem. The world couldn’t exist as we know it without mining; moreover, mining products like lithium may be what enables us to avoid the worst impacts of what global warming could do to the planet. The trade of past for future, while not without cost, is also not without benefit.

But the boom and bust cycle of extraction, allowed to run freely with no plan in place for after, can be catastrophic on short and generational timescales. Replacing this kind of outcome with a brighter and healthier future for the communities near mining operations takes planning from the beginning, and careful consideration of how extraction impacts the land and people nearby, long before they will face that aftermath.

With any new mining venture must come a vision of what the world should look like when extraction is finished, a plan for what comes after. This pivot toward considering industry as part of a whole social and ecological system is the essence of reshaping global development toward something sustainable. And such changes are fully within our grasp, if we choose to prioritize them highly enough. In the end, global markets are run by human hands, not by invisible ones.