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Migration in the Americas: Bolivia hopes for windfall from producing lithium for batteries

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

The salt flats, or Salar de Uyuni, which covers 4,000 square miles of Bolivia.

Photojournalist Kadir van Lohuizen traveled from the southern tip of South America to the far reaches of Alaska on the North American continent to explore migration in the Americas. What he found both supported and defied stereotypes, which he reported on a website and an app for iPad called Via Panam.

Landlocked Bolivia hasn't had much in the way of resources that it can sell to the world, but that could be about to change. It's home to the world's largest salt flat, which also is estimated to hold half the world's reserves of lithium — a light metal that's crucial for today's modern batteries for cell phones, laptops and even hybrid and electric cars.

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

Workers at the experimental evaporation plant where the lithium is extracted bring tubes from the well to the basins. Workers are from different parts of Bolivia.

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

Bolivian President Evo Morales celebrates the inauguration of the experimental lithium plant.

President Evo Morales wants Bolivia to mine the site itself, albeit with some foreign help. If it can pull off the logistics, it would mean sending an army of workers from all over the country to a remote part of Bolivia along the border with Chile.

The area is the Salar de Uyuni, which covers 4,000 square miles and where the salt layer is at least 400 feet thick.

Bolivia started preliminary work in April 2011, employing 150 workers. But progress has slowed, in part because the site still lacks a stable electricity supply.

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

Due to heavy rainfall, much of the Salar de Uyuni is still covered with water. A tractor brings the workers to the experimental evaporation plant.

K. van Lohuizen / NOOR

From Colombians fleeing war to North Americans retirees moving to Nicaragua, a photographer's journey from Chile to Alaska explores both the expected and unexpected patterns of migration in the Americas

Japan, potentially a major buyer, recently urged Bolivia to speed up the project and meet its goal of a 6-month test run before moving on to commercial production.

Bolivia also faces competition from lithium mines in neighboring Chile and Argentina.

Still, it did get a boost in July when a South Korean company said it would help provide technology and training of workers.

Experience the entire journey, from Chile to Alaska, by exploring the slideshow at right, the Via Panam website or by downloading the app for iPad.

More Photoblogs from the Migration in the Americas series:
Mom works in US while family stays in El Salvador
US retirees flock to Nicaragua
On the run from water in Panama

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