Hybrid autos threaten Latin America

Brian Thompson

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Remember those commercials about five years ago that compared SUV drivers to terrorist enablers? Every time you gassed up your Suburban was the equivalent of high-fiving Bin Laden or buying Muammar Ghadaffi a beer, they said.

However, with the advent of fuel-efficient hybrids, we're not funding terrorism and carnage any more, right? Not Middle Eastern terrorism and carnage, anyways.

Aside from that nice young mailman your grandma ran over when she forgot where the park gear in her Prius was located, hybrids haven't killed anybody ... yet. However, all that could change if the world's business and political interests converge on a desolate, sun-baked Bolivian wasteland known as the Salar de Uyuni.

Known as the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” Bolivia has half of the world's known deposits. Once only used for specialized products such as anti-psychotic medications, lithium is now a vital part of electronics we use every day such as cell phones and laptop computers. The demand for lithium is expected to increase dramatically in the next decade, and several companies are hungry to get their hands on Bolivian lithium.

Leading the charge are car manufacturers. Demands for increased mileage and alternative fuel options have led all the major manufacturers to develop hybrid vehicles. However, the batteries that help power these vehicles contain lithium, which means the mineral has just gained added value.

Not so fast, says Bolivian president Evo Morales. Known for his opposition to foreign exploitation of Bolivian resources, Morales has limited mining in the lithium fields and supports tribal groups in their efforts to collect some of the revenues from mining operations on their lands.

The new Bolivian constitution, which was approved on February 2, nationalizes certain mineral resources and gives a greater share of the revenue from resources to Indian groups, while placing greater restrictions on mining by foreign companies.

Add to this the fact that the wealthier states in Bolivia have attempted to secede because of the central government cutting into their mining revenues, and you have the perfect recipe for a Bolivian civil war.

Most of 2008 was marred by riots and killings between pro-government groups and anti-government movements, and 2009 doesn't look any better. The deep divide between rich and poor in Bolivia fuels civil unrest, and when there's money to be made from a valuable mineral, you can expect violence to follow.

So think about that before you go out and buy a hybrid.

Powerful countries have a way of getting the resources they want, even when governments stand in the way. Guatemala interfered with America's banana supply in 1954, and had its government overthrown. The same went for Iran in 1952.

As innocuous and endearingly ugly as it may be, the Toyota Prius may be the vehicle for destabilization in South America.

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