Sociotechnical Imaginaries in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia

Drew Grenier

Joe-Yee Yip

Peyton Graham

Molly Sykes

Professor San Martin (Water Energy-Food Nexus)

Topics in Environmental History


Barandiarán, J. (2018). Lithium and development imaginaries in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. World Development,113, 381-391. doi:


The author Javiera Barandiaran is an Assistant Professor in the department of Global Studies  at the University of California Santa Barbara. Barandiaran has received awards from the National Science Foundation, Social Science Research Council, the Government of Spain, and the Caja Madrid Foundation. The research and writings center mostly around the topics of analyzing environmental conflicts and examining the use of scientific and technical rationality are used in collective decision making in emerging democracies. As the majority of the author’s works revolve around environmental issues in developing democracies such as Chilie along with a dissertation examining failings of Environmental Impact Assessments, the author seems well in authority to report on the issue discussed in the paper.


The publication is a journal article focusing on the potential impacts of an impending technology driven “lithium boom” on Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia which are home to the world’s largest deposits of lithium. It is written by an assistant professor of Global Studies.


The discovery of lithium in brines underneath salt flats has opened up opportunities in field of reducing fossil and making renewable energy storage more affordable. Majority of the brines are concentrated in three countries – Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. This article analyzes ongoing debates about lithium in these three countries to identify what hopes, fears and expectations different stakeholders are bringing to debates about lithium (Barandiaran 1).

Lithium accumulates in salt flats through leaching that occurred over thousands of years. Brines are pumped from underneath the salt crust into large evaporation pools. These pools are left to sit in the sun and eventually sodium carbonate is added to produce lithium carbonate. Lithium carbonate is used worldwide for batteries.

In this article, the author emphasizes the idea of resource imaginaries and the concept sociotechnical imaginaries that highlight the importance of science and technology. Imaginaries are defined as “collective constructions of how individuals understand their place in a culturally and historically-specific world” (Barandiaran 3). Sociotechnical imaginaries are useful for examining the relationship between resources, development and nation-making. Specifically Bolivian President Evo Morales has used science and technology to reinforce the implementation of Bolivia’s first telecommunications satellite, named Tupac Katari in honor of the leader of an indigenous rebellion. This example “illustrates an emerging sociotechnical imaginary in which satellite technology is used to retell long-erased histories, advance an indigenous national identity in defiance of Western imperialism and assert a uniquely Bolivian modernity” (Barandiaran 384).

The author uses these sociotechnical imaginaries in literature to determine the position of individuals active in lithium policy and extraction in each country. She discovered that only a small number of individuals were active in the lithium sector. These individuals “can be grouped into state officials, consultants and industry officials, and scientists engaged in research and development (Barandiaran 384). In addition, the author analyzed the policy documents and media articles, such as Copper Commission (Cochilco) in Chile and the National Evaporated Industries Corporation (Comibol) in Bolivia and determined there is little scholarly research involved.

These discoveries placed lithium in three viewpoints – lithium as a banal commodity, lithium as a “strategic resource”, and a lithium focused sociotechnical imaginary. Chile has done research on the market price of lithium and determine “one year of lithium sales generates as much revenue as copper in one month” (Barandiaran 385). With this discovery, countries have strongly felt that lithium is not valuable not important for a country’s growth and therefore classified lithium as a strategic resource. As a strategic resource, lithium possess the possibility to be a global commodity. Companies like Tesla recently expanded on lithium batteries in cars. This allows for countries, such as Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia that have a surplus of lithium to be extremely desirable in the global economy. Lastly, lithium classified as a sociotechnical imaginary allows for a new kind of advancement that will be more sustainable. For example, Bolivia approved a corporation (Comibol) to extract lithium. Comibol has developed safe lithium extraction as well as building significant infrastructure. Each viewpoint of lithium demonstrates the different uses and opportunities.


The pattern Javiera Barandiaran chooses to follow throughout her article is that of which first advocates for a specific imagenies ideals and benefits, before drawing on the effects of the more negative side of a specific imaginaries spectrum. When she discusses the idea of the socio-technological imaginary for instance, she first highlights the notion that the ultimate goal of extracting lithium deposits in this imaginary is not for the soul purpose of profit or economic strategery, as the banal and strategic imaginaries are for,  but rather the expansion of science and technology within a developing country. She then goes on to describe how this comes with the added benefit of increasing a country’s industrial state and ultimately its prospect of becoming developed. However, immediately after this description Barandiaran goes on to explain how while increase in a country’s development through science and technological industry is advantageous from a monetary standpoint, it can have its drawbacks from a community and environmental perspective. For example, on page 338 of her article Barandiaran state, “…it is likely that this sociotechnical imaginary will have negative impacts for some communities. A number of the new industries lithium’s sociotechnical imaginary promotes are ecologically destructive. In Bolivia, the same lithium policy supports developing heavy industries and chemical processing capacities”(Barandiaran 338). This same pattern is followed in Barandiaran’s descriptions of lithium being viewed as a strategic and banal imaginary. What she fails to sustain at the conclusion of all these descriptions is the question of any one imageniay being the most efficient in the development of a third world country such a Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. Barandiaran is very systematic in her approach to the imageries in respect to lithium extraction in these countries but fails to question the one thing all these imagenries have in common. Ultimately leaving her reader with only mere speculation, especially for the socio-technological, for the future outcomes of implementing these three developmental imaginaries.


This work can be compared and contrasted with McNeill’s work on The Lithosphere and Pedosphere: The Crust of the Earth. In McNeill’s writing the impacts of extracting metals and coal while Barandiarán discusses the impacts of extracting Lithium. McNeill’s article continuously states the negative environmental impacts of extracting metals and coal which have direct correlation to health issues and unlivable conditions for lower class, underrepresented, minority groups. Through the discussion about the impacts of metal and coal extraction it is clearly apparent that the process of extraction negatively impacts minority communities which can be seen as a form of environmental racism as these communities are unable to defend their rights to safe working and living conditions. In Barandiarán’s writing there is a lack of negative impacts of lithium extraction on the environment and on society. It is presented that there is a lack of scientific research on the impact of Lithium extraction however, with the research that is currently available all conclusions point to a very minimal environmental impact of Lithium extraction. Due to its minimal impact on the environment there are not any direct links to environmental racism as all groups are positively impacted by the extraction of Lithium.


The work inspires more research on the impacts of Lithium extraction environmentally and socially. Currently not a lot of research has been done regarding the impacts of Lithium extraction and with the plausible increase of Lithium in commercial industries the environmental impacts of the extraction process will have to be further examined. In addition the social impacts of a new market in different countries would have to be analyzed to determine the best course of action for introducing a new market.  

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