Photographers' Blog

The lithium triangle

LITHIUM MINING

Argentina, Bolivia and Chile hold the planet’s largest reserves of lithium, a key component in batteries used to power a range of technologies from cell phones to laptops to electric cars.

Industrial production from the so-called “lithium triangle” is already high. Chile is the world’s leading source of the metal, turning out around 40 percent of global supply, and Argentina is another significant producer. Output from the Andes may soon rise after Bolivia – the country that holds an estimated 50 percent of the world’s lithium reserves – opened its first lithium pilot plant in January.

Reuters photographers recently traveled to the research and production sites in those three countries, all located in high altitude salt flats at around 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level, and wrote about their experiences.

GALLERY: THE LITHIUM TRIANGLE

Salar de Atacama, Chile

By Ivan Alvarado

Nelson sculpts alongside the dirt road that runs by his house. In the shadows I can see different figures of volcanic rock exhibited for sale to the few tourists who pass by here. His daughter Luz and her children keep him company as his hands transform another piece of stone into a miniature of a church steeple.

“He was chosen twice as the best worker,” Luz says.

“Best worker at what?” I asked.

“At the lithium plant.”

Apart from sculpting, Nelson works at one of the two lithium plants that exist on the Atacama salt flat. Born in Santiago, he moved to Toconao more than 30 years ago. He first learned to be a craftsman, and then became a mine worker. In the back of his house is a small plot where he grows fruit and vegetables. There is also an area dotted by several small wooden huts, and a portable swimming pool to cool down in. Inside, a huge stereo takes up a large part of the wall next to a flat screen TV.

Aviation spirit

By David Mercado

After being lost for nearly an hour in the north of El Alto, a city at 3,800 meters (12,467 ft) above sea level and one of the poorest and fastest growing in Latin America, we arrived at the home of Jaime Cancari. Jaime and his sons Hugo and Franklin, who like most of this city are ethnic Aymaras, have decided to become Bolivia’s first helicopter builders. We were there to visit their factory.

In a country with no aviation industry, we were at least expecting to find a small factory with considerable technology, but were shocked to find no more than a primitive workshop. The Cancaris normally make the iron bumpers and roof racks that are an essential part of off-road vehicles in Bolivia, where paved roads are few. The frames that resembled the beginnings of a helicopter were sitting in the same dirt yard where the Cancaris live and work.

Jaime and his sons Franklin and Hugo appeared in impeccable blue uniforms with a computerized logo sewn on them that read, “Cancari, Helicopters for Bolivia.” We started by asking about the project and their technical credentials, but the answer was, in the least, astonishing. None of the Cancaris had finished high school, and the team leader Jaime expressed himself better in his native Aymara than in Spanish.