Bolivia – the next Fordlandia?

boliva-salt-minesIn today’s New York Times, the paper examined the role of lithium deposits in the south-western portion of the country in Salar de Uyuni, an indigenous stronghold – one that was further protected by the Bolivian Constitution that passed last week.

In the rush to build the next generation of hybrid or electric cars, a sobering fact confronts both automakers and governments seeking to lower their reliance on foreign oil: almost half of the world’s lithium, the mineral needed to power the vehicles, is found here in Bolivia — a country that may not be willing to surrender it so easily.

This has not stopped multinationals from Japan, the United States and France, for example, from trying over just the past few months. The rush towards lithium as a savior from foreign fossil fuels could, if the protections voted on by the majority of Bolivians are subverted, produce another Fordlania in South America.

Fordlandia
fordlandiaHenry Ford never visited South America, much less Brazil, but it did not stop him from setting up a rubber plantation in, what is today, Belterra. He created Fordlandia to break a British-Dutch monopoly on rubber and the high Asian prices. He was tired of the low-quality Firestone tires (we could talk about Liberia as a rubber fiefdom, then and now, in the same context) and set out to create his own.

Mary Dempsey illustrated how Ford subverted Brazilian land and sovereignty for his own gains, a model that was repeated for almost another century.

In 1927 Detroit attorneys O.Z. Ida and W. L. Reeves Blakely negotiated an agreement granting the automaker 2.5 million acres deep in the Brazilian Amazon, police protection and duty-free entry of all Ford equipment and supplies. In exchange for the free land, the U.S. firm promised to return nine percent of the operation’s profits to the local and national governments after twelve years.

The land was fenced in, fed by power generators, and created into a suburban middle-class town, “The Dearborn in the Jungle.” Of course, it was the mosquitoes, the uneven land, and the environmental degradation that did in Fordlandia, although Ford tried to make it viable into the 1930s. In Ford’s inflated head, he continued to see no wrong. No rubber harvest was ever produced at Fordlandia. No cultivation of other materials. No uplifting of the local population occurred. An air-strip was built during World War II because someone actually thought the Nazi’s were eying this corner of Brazil. The base was abandoned during the war, but not after pumping $30 million into the project. The camp today fits stagnant in the jungle. The Brazilian government does not wish to add workers to its, already tight, payroll.

The turn of the twenty-first century is vastly different from the the turn of the twentieth. But the point is strong. In the twentieth century, subversion of South Americans was bolstered by an active Monroe Doctrine, a purpose of economic dominance, and a lack of compassion for other people, people thought to be below North Americans. The same impulses are strong, but slightly tilted. Future subversion rest upon the same drive that has not diminished since Henry Ford’s time, the goal of economic stability (and, admit it, superiority, as the global financial crisis begins to lift), and disinterest of people’s movements, especially, just like Ford, indigenous people.

Of course, the history surrounding Fordlandia is different than Brazil. Many Fordlandia’s have existed since 1927, some existing today. Bolivia will not be on the scale of Fordlandia, that is not what I am suggesting. Fordlandia is simply a tool in which to view the history of a region and its struggles between global capital and people’s rights.

Bolivia is not Brazil, although close
The United States Geological Survey says 5.4 million tons of lithium could potentially be extracted in Bolivia, compared with 3 million in Chile, 1.1 million in China and just 410,000 in the United States. Thus,

There are salt lakes in Chile and Argentina, and a promising lithium deposit in Tibet, but the prize is clearly in Bolivia.

Oji Baba’s, an executive in Mitsubishi’s Base Metals Unit, sentiments are echoed across the Global North. As these corporations sound the horn, the role of lithium, like rubber, takes on a new height of importance. The Obama administration, who has made it a campaign promise to limit fossil fuels, and other governments are beginning to focus on the Andes. The Times, doing their part, made sure to label those living there as “Quechua-speaking Indians [who] subsist on the remains of an ancient inland sea by bartering the salt they carry out on llama caravans.”

bolivia-protest-minesBut it is is the people, those behind the “llama caravans” who will stand up this time. All across Latin America, as mining continues as if it were its heyday in the early twentieth century in Chile and Ecuador, it is massive protests for human and environmental rights that often bring governments and corporations to their knees. Says Francisco Quisbert, 64, the leader of Frutcas, a group of salt gatherers and quinoa farmers on the edge of Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat.

We know that Bolivia can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium…We are poor, but we are not stupid peasants. The lithium may be Bolivia’s, but it is also our property.

But often, as is the case in Ecuador and Colombia, mining continues at the behest of the government, and not its people. While reinforcing that the old neoliberal and neocolonial models were not going to work in Bolivia, Saúl Villegas, head of a division in Comibol that oversees lithium extraction said,

The previous imperialist model of exploitation of our natural resources will never be repeated in Bolivia…Maybe there could be the possibility of foreigners accepted as minority partners, or better yet, as our clients.

The Times put it differently:

But with economic growth slowing and a decline in oil prices limiting the reach of its top patron, Venezuela, it remains unclear how Bolivia can achieve this on its own.

The problem, of course, is not inherently the mining, but the systems and psychological effects imposed by mining corporations indifferent to Bolivia, or any country that is not theirs. It destroyed villages, turned towns upside down and reduced the people to mere objects. That was Fordlandia’s problem, it ignored everything with only rubber in its sights. Holding that Bolivia cannot do this on its own is proof that achieving is what they can do, but it may not gives us any benefit, except a cleaner environment. No one doubts the importance of lithium, but one must remember the history of economic and environmental destruction in Latin America and trust the the people, not the corporations.

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~ by Daniel on February 3, 2009.

One Response to “Bolivia – the next Fordlandia?”

  1. I find this to be the most volatile coming standoff in greed vs. transparent global awareness. The planet should place a shield of loving kindness around Evo Morales & all of Bolivia to protect them from the few who consider themselves “Masters of The Universe”.

    Mike

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