Schröter David

Sovereignty Works: Industrial Work at the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, and its Role in Shaping Sovereignty Practices

Sous la direction de M. Goodale, Université de Lausanne


Since Evo Morales was inaugurated in 2006, Bolivia has undergone enormous changes. One of them is a paradigm shift towards “productive sovereignty”, concerted efforts to embark on an energy industrialization strategy, that will allow Bolivia to enter a “postneoliberal” stage of development. A crucial effort within this strategy is the extraction and processing of lithium from the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.

The research proposed here aims to explore this paradigm shift at a regional level, through the lenses of industrial work and sovereign agency. It raises the question of how the different practices of industrial work that are now taking place on the Salar de Uyuni are influencing and are influenced by sovereignty practices. This shifts the focus away from the national discourse surrounding “productive sovereignty” and towards local practices that go towards creating, contesting or shaping the vision that Bolivia’s energy industrialization strategy aims to make reality.

One of the world’s largest salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni is a unique environment, seemingly hostile to life, which yet has seen many practices of industrial and agricultural work thrive on and around it. The kind of work looked at in this research concerns the extraction of three minerals that are in demand today globally: lithium, borax and salt. All three industries share the space of the Salar de Uyuni, further allowing for an exploration of the dynamics between these different kinds of work.

The question of ownership over the lithium and even the Salar de Uyuni itself has led to community organizing and vehement protests in the past. These concerted efforts are understood here as sovereign agency, which itself is understood as a kind of work – they are the attempts of communities to make themselves political actors, rendering themselves visible in the process and going on to shape notions of sovereignty at large.