Agreements with China and Russia to produce lithium may put Bolivia at the center of coup attempts

Billionaire investments from Chinese companies may boost the Bolivian manufacturing industry

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Aerial view of the evaporation pools at the state-owned lithium extraction complex in the southern part of the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia - PABLO COZZAGLIO / AFP

The attempted coup on Wednesday (26) in Bolivia made the world look at this Latin American country with attention. Part of the country's armed forces gathered in front of the Palacio de Gobierno, the Bolivian government’s headquarters, in defiance of President Luis Arce. The situation calmed down after the change of command at the top of the Bolivian Armed Forces.

With a population of just over 12 million people and a GDP of US$46 billion, the country is home to around 23% of the world's lithium reserves, a key mineral for the tech industry. The metal could be behind intentions to destabilize the country.

It was about Bolivia that tech tycoon Elon Musk referred to in a Twitter post in 2020 saying that “We will coup whoever we want!”.

Today, the country has little capacity to process the metal, but partnerships signed with China in 2023 could change this situation. Marco Fernandes, who holds a master's degree in History, co-founded Dongsheng and edits Wenhua Zongheng International magazine, explains that the agreements "open up a new horizon for the Bolivian economy.”

"In January, an initial investment of US$1 billion was announced by global lithium battery leader China's CATL in a joint venture with Bolivia's state-owned company Yacimientos de Litio Boliviano (YLB, in Spanish) to build two factories that are expected to produce 50,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year. The total investment could reach US$9.9 billion," Fernandes says.

"In June, YLB signed two other agreements, reaching US$1.4 billion: one with China's Citic Guoan Group and the other with Russia's Uranium One Group (a subsidiary of state nuclear giant Rosatom). There will be two more lithium carbonate production plants, which may reach 45,000 tons a year," he says.

Fernandes recalls that Bolivia produced only 635.5 tons of lithium carbonate between January and November 2022. "With these new agreements, [lithium carbonate] production could reach almost 100,000 tons by 2025."

In addition, Citig Guoan is thinking about investing in the production of lithium batteries and electric vehicles in Bolivia.

"In other words, Bolivia is moving towards a new phase of its national lithium production, accelerating the industrialization process, taking a greater share of the mineral's wealth (instead of just exporting raw lithium), advancing in the training of technical staff, and doing all this in partnership with China and Russia."

Edited by: Lucas Estanislau