Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia: Late in the morning the colours are at their prettiest, at their most intense. As far as the eye can see, the luminous white of the world’s greatest salt flats blends with the tender blue of the clear skies above the alpine desert of the Bolivian Andes.
The charismatic silence, very good at relieving the burden of one’s thoughts, is occasionally broken by the whistle of a mild though decidedly chilly breeze. The surrounding hills, some of them straining up 5000 metres, are sharply reflected in the thin film of rainwater not yet evaporated into the atmosphere. On a clear day and from afar, Salar de Uyuni looks like a colossal mirage. From up close, it looks nothing less than a miracle. But it may not remain that way for long.
Along the salt lake’s southern rim, industrial machines roar. Hundreds of heavy trucks are coming and going over the salty crust, wheezing like exhausted beasts, some 40 years old. Diesel fumes permeate the crisp mountain air. In their wake, the trucks leave perfect brown lines in the virginal whiteness, making the lake’s scores of square kilometres look like a giant bowl of cafe latte.
The workers are drilling the salt with humungous rigs, aiming for the brine beneath. Lodged under enormous quantities of magnesium and potassium lies their goal: lithium, the essential power source for all the world’s gadgets, the key component to fuel the entire 21st century.
Visually, the rape of the extremely delicate landscape could hardly be any more brutal. The workers, wearing the red uniform of the state-owned Comibol mining company, first use bulldozers to load the trucks. The brine is then transported to the nearby pools carved out in the middle of the lake. Some of these pools are more than a kilometre wide.
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