I heard about the unrest in Bolivia on NPR’s Up First podcast while getting ready for class last semester. I hear upsetting news on Up First pretty much everyday, but this stuck out because I traveled through Bolivia with a student program. I don’t have a real connection to the country; I was a strange tourist, but the fact of having physically been there, having stood on the largest salt flat in the world makes it feel more real to me.
I want to talk about the present, but Bolivia has a lot of past that needs to be addressed. I’m by no means an expert; this summary is an amalgamation of what I learned in classes on my trip, and the Wikipedia article on Bolivia, where I got all the dates.
The Spanish conquering force arrived on the shores of South America in 1524 and had mostly conquered the Incan Empire by 1533. The area that would become Bolivia was then known as Charcas.
In 1545 the mining town of Potosi was founded high in the Andes mountains to extract silver from the ‘Cerro Rico’ (meaning ‘rich mountain’), an imposing peak at 4,824 metres above sea level that contained the largest silver deposit in the world. The Spanish enslaved the indiginous population to mine and smelt silver from the mountain. In 20 years nearly all of the easily available silver deposits had been exhausted, and so more intensive mining approaches were used. In the 16th and 17th century the riches of Potosi were pressed into coin and shipped to Europe. An estimated 60,000 tonnes of silver were extracted from the rich mountain by 1996.
In 1781 Túpac Katari led an indigenous rebellion which was put down at the cost of 20,000 deaths.. In 1809 the wars for Latin American independence began with revolution in the city of Sucre, Bolivia. 16 years of war ended with victory over spain, and on August 6 the Republic of Bolivia, named for general Simon Bolivar, was established.
At the time of its founding Bolivia had over twice as much territory as it now covers. It lost land to all four of its neighboring countries, mostly over the discovery of some newly valuable resources, including saltpeter (sodium nitrate), rubber trees, and underground oil.
These wars were waged by the spanish descendants who ruled the newly formed countries, and the conditions of the indigenous population remained terribly brutal.
Although Bolivia has nominally been a republic since its founding, before 1982 it was governed by US backed military dictators with short, unstable periods of democracy following popular revolutions.
Evo Morales was born to indigenous Aymara farmers in 1959. He ran for congress and won in 1997 on a socialist and anti-imperialist platform. He won the presidency in 2005 with an absolute majority of the vote. Though most of the population of Bolivia identify as indigenous, Morales is viewed as the country’s first indigenous leader, and was the first to include native religion as part of his official inauguration. Over the course of his administration he nationalized gas, mining, among other industries, alienating multinational corporations which had previously been involved in Bolivia’s resource extraction-based economy. When Morales took office, he had support from idiginous communities, but as time went on his popularity among some of these groups fell.
On November 12th I heard on the news that Evo Morales had fled to Mexico after pressure from the country’s commander of the armed forces following increased protests over the Organization American States found the results of the recent election were tampered with. Bolivia is still in turmoil, with protests, counter-protests, and no certainty of the future.
Despite the centuries of resource removal and loss, Bolivia remains an incredibly biologically and geologically rich country. Within its borders are some of the highest peaks of the Andes mountain range, rainforests of the Amazon basin, part of lake Titicaca, 20% of the world’s tropical glaciers, large deposits of natural gas, and the largest salt flat in the world. Salar de Uyuni in southwestern Bolivia at 10,582 km2 is vast and beautiful expanse of salt. You should image search it to see what I mean. There are ancient fossilized coral islands that rise from the flats home to giant cacti and lakes with Andean flamingos. In the dry season, people drive across the plains of white salt crystals. My travel group spent a few days there, sightseeing. We had just finished a backpacking trip, the final leg of which brought us through steep foothills made treacherous by landslides caused my strip mining, and we were quite happy to sit back and ride across the stunning flats. On one of our stops, I wrapped up a salt crystal and in a tattered plastic bag and took it with me.
Geologists believe that Salar de Uyuni contains the largest known deposit of lithium in the world, in the brine under the thick salt crust. Bolivia hasn’t been a major exporter of lithium, partially since the regulations under the Morales administration were so strict, and partially since lithium is fairly abundant and difficult to extract from salt flats. The current interim leader of the country, Jeanine Cháves, hopes to open the country to foreign trade, and with the increasing demand for lithium batteries, perhaps extraction will begin.