Salt Miner, Salar de Uyuni

Taken near the tail end of a three-day trip to the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve and the Salar de Uyuni in southwest Bolivia, the latter the largest salt flat on the planet. The variety of landscapes offered over the course of the tour were both astounding and mind-boggling: from multicolored lagoons that are a breeding ground for three of South America’s pink flamingo species, to high altitude deserts framed by 5,000-meter (16,400 ft) high volcanoes, and to the vast salt flat itself.

It’s estimated that the 10,000 square kilometer salar contains 10 billion tons of salt; of that only about 25,000 tons are extracted annually.  It’s also home to the world’s largest reserves of lithium, the element that feeds the rechargeable batteries that power our smart phones, laptops and tablets and fuels electric vehicles.

Bolivian president Evo Morales is banking big on lithium, insisting the white powder could play a major role in helping to bring his country, generally regarded as South America’s poorest, out of the shackles of poverty.

But the location, landscape and harsh terrain, one that draws 60,000 visitors each year, poses hefty challenges for extraction. The lack of roads and basic infrastructure along with the flat’s seasonal flooding makes lithium mining an expensive proposition. For now, that’s a silver lining for those convinced that mining could have a disastrous impact on the area’s delicate ecosystem.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, 28-Mar-2013
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