After the resignation of Bolivian President Evo Morales earlier this month, a new conspiracy theory has gained momentum on social media. It claims the ousting of Bolivia's first indigenous leader was orchestrated by the United States to control the exploitation of lithium in the country.
Morales fled to Mexico under pressure from protests, allies, the police and the military, over allegations of rigging an October election
But a week ago, Uruguay's ex-president José Mujica echoed the conspiracy theory in an interview on national television.
"Bolivia is very rich, it harbours an estimated 70% of the raw material needed to make new batteries. We all know that there is a global energy shift: I am not accusing anyone, because I have no proof, but I am just suspicious in light of history,” he said.
Euronews worked with experts to debunk rumours surrounding the so-called "lithium theory."
What's the theory?
Posts linking unrest in Bolivia to control of natural resources, in particular, lithium, have flourished on Twitter and Facebook in recent days.
The tweet below, for instance, connects the following facts:
"1. China controls the exploitation of most of the world's lithium.
2. The US begins to build mines.
3. Trump declares lithium one of the crucial minerals for the country.
4. Bolivia finds a deposit that makes it rival China.
5. Coup d'etat in Bolivia. "
The so-called white gold is key to the development of new technologies and plays an increasingly important role on the global stage, as world powers race to ensure they have access to reserves of minerals considered as "critical".
"Lithium is part of the components required for renewable energy. Demand is growing steadily: the price has doubled since 2016, partly because the Chinese government is encouraging the construction of electric cars," said Juan Diego Rodríguez Blanco, professor of nano-mineralogy at Trinity College in Dublin.
"Chinese and German companies have stakes in Bolivia. The same is true in Chile," the expert added.
The South American country is located in the so-called lithium triangle, along with Argentina and Chile and is home to an important part of world reserves. The largest site is the Uyuni salt flats, located in one of the poorest regions in the country.
"It is the largest in the world. It is estimated that it could contain 70% of exploitable lithium worldwide," Rodríguez-Blanco told Euronews.
Furthermore, Bolivia had recently launched Quantum, its first electric vehicle - another argument for those who believe that it is a coup d'etat related to lithium.
Why the theory doesn't hold up
According to Reed Blakemore, associate director of the Atlantic Center think tank, climate conditions on the site make extraction difficult, requiring technology available only to few companies.
"If we look at the potential interest that the United States might have in lithium reserves and combine the high economic cost, the existing technological barriers to extracting lithium and the political instability of the country, the risks are too high for American companies willing to get involved," Blakemore said.
Extraction difficulties led the Bolivian government to conclude an agreement in 2019 with the German company ACI Systems. The investment of up to 1.3 billion dollars in a lithium industrialisation project should have resulted in the local production of car batteries.
Following the opposition of local communities to the project, Morales terminated the contract with ACI Systems days before he left the Government -- a key point for those who believe the coup was the result of a conspiracy.
"The contract between the ACI company and the Government raised concerns among the local population, who feared that the income generated by the extraction would not benefit the community. And it is not only a concern in Bolivia but in the lithium triangle in general," Blakemore said.
On November 7, the magazine Dialogue of the US Southern Command published an article entitled "Chinese companies to exploit Bolivian lithium" in its section on "Transnational Threats." The agreement was signed at the beginning of the year but became public in November, as the country was hit by political crisis.
Blakemore points out the United States has alternative ways to access lithium reserves, mainly Chile and Australia -- both of whom are close US allies.
In addition, Rodríguez-Blanco told Euronews, mining in Australia is cheaper than in Bolivia due to the conditions in which the mineral is found.
Bolivian researcher Oscar Campanini believes that the causes of the current conflict are mainly domestic.
"Although there may be different transnational economic interests at play in this type of conflicts resulting in changes of government, in the case of these protests the key driving forces are mainly national and linked to the continuity of the Evo Morales government," he said.
Political Scientist Thea Riofrancos also does not believe lithium was the reason behind an alleged "coup d'etat." The expert, whose work focuses on global lithium markets, said on Twitter that lithium was not a scarce mineral -- the market is actually "flooded" with it and some producers are even beginning to store it, waiting for a price hike.
In addition, Bolivian lithium is not the most suitable for the production of electric vehicle batteries, Riofrancos continued, and it is very expensive to extract it due to its high concentration of magnesium.