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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Salar De Uyuni

Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia.  Image courtesy of Ezequiel Cabrere/Wikipedia.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America.  Gold, silver, tin, gas and oil have all been exported from the country, but those exports made others rich, not Bolivia. But it has another chance, and the country is guarding this chance carefully.

Image courtesy of Luca Galuzzi/Wikipedia.

Right now there is global demand for lithium.  This is a lightweight metal that is used to produce high-powered batteries for cell phones, laptops, hybrid cars, and coincidentally, my mouse.  The demand is expected to triple in the next decade or so, and fifty to seventy percent of the world's supply of lithium is in Bolivia.

The hexagonal tiles of the salt flat.  Image courtesy of Anouchka Unel/Wikipedia.

President Evo Morales seeks to expand state control over the resource, under the aegis of the minister for mining, Luis Alberto Echazu, who states, "We want to send a message to the industrialized countries and their companies.  We will not repeat the historical experience since the fifteenth century:  raw materials exported for the industrialization of the West that has left us poor."

Piles of salt.  Image courtesy of Luca Galuzzi/Wikipedia.

Not rushing to cash in on their valued export, Bolivia's government is considering the environmental damage that could occur with mass extraction.  A lithium extraction plant could generate pollution not only from fossil fuels but from the sulphur dioxide which is an unwanted by-product of extraction.

Salt production.  Image courtesy of Ricampelo/Wikipedia.

Right now the Uyuni salt plain, which is similar to the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake, is an eco-tourist site.  It is the largest salt flat in the world, measuring 4,086 square miles.  Located in the Potosi and Ururo departments in southwest Bolivia it rests 11,995 feet above sea level.  It was formed during the late Pleistocene era when two lakes existed on the altiplano.  One of them slowly dried up about 15,000 to 10,000 years ago, leaving dissolved minerals to form a salt plain.  Some of these minerals are gypsum, potassium, lithium, magnesium, borax, and halite, also known as salt.

Layers of salt and water.  Image courtesy of Mitsuhirato/Wikipedia.

Salar De Yuni, as the area is known, is estimated to contain ten billion tons of salt. "Salar" means salt flat in Spanish, and Uyuni originates from the Aymara language and means "enclosure" or "pen".  So the name translates to "salt flat with pens", which could refer to the "islands" on it.

Cacti on "Fish Island".  Image courtesy of Claire Pouteau/Wikipedia.

The hexagonal tiles of the plain were created by the cyrstalline nature of the salt. They are dotted with pyramids of salt.  Despite the dryness (this is a desert region) and freezing night temperatures, there are pink flamingos, cacti, and rare hummingbirds, to name a few of its denizens.  Some of the cacti are thirty feet high.  There are roaming herds of vicunas, cousins to the llama.

Image courtesy of Anouchka Unel/Wikipedia.

Hundreds of Quechua natives from the surrounding villages process salt for a living.  They cut small blocks of salt, then commence with drying and grinding it, then add iodine and package it for table salt.

Traditional salt production.  Image courtesy of Steffen Siedz/Wikipedia.

About 15,000 tourists visit each year.  The scenery is breathtaking, and during the wet season the shallow water that covers the flats resembles a huge mirror.  An enterprising tour operator built a hotel entirely made of salt - the walls, roof, floor, chairs, tables, and some beds.  Since the intense sun heats the salt blocks during the day, at night the rooms retain that heat while outside temperatures may drop below freezing.

Salt hotel being built.  Image courtesy of National Geographic News.

There are twelve guest rooms with twenty-four beds and shared bathrooms around a central courtyeard.  The hotel is said to be comfortable and dry and does not smell like salt.  It has flush toilets but no showers.  There is a separate building with cheaper rates for backpackers.

Inside the Salt Hotel.  Image courtesy of hotelhatter.com

Although Bolivia's initial reluctance to open up the area for the mining of lithium may have stemmed from its experiences of others getting rich off their resources, with the area attracting tourists environmental concerns become financially important as well as the health of the native population.  May the country find a balanced solution to the dilemma and be environmentally safe and financially prosperous.


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