Salero: The life of a Bolivian salt gatherer
A salt gatherer becomes a link to the old world when Bolivia embarks on a plan to mine lithium from the Uyuni salt flat.
Moises Chambi Yucra is one of the last remaining salt gatherers in the world’s largest salt flats of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia . For generations, “saleros” have harvested salt from the pristine, otherworldly expanse of white. But selling salt is becoming less and less profitable as this remote region is thrust into the future.
Bolivia’s leaders are embarking on a plan to extract the precious metal lithium found beneath the salt crust and to build infrastructure to connect the Salar to the outside world.
Progress seems unstoppable and Moises wrestles with his disappearing way of life. Set in one of the most secluded places on earth, Moises’ story explores how identity is formed by both tradition and progress.
By Mike Plunkett
As a storyteller, I’m fascinated by places and the power they have in shaping the identities of the people who live in them.
In February 2009, I read an article about the vast, untapped lithium reserves beneath the Salar de Uyuni, the Bolivian salt flat which is the largest in the world, and how Bolivia was apparently poised for historic change. But it was the images of the landscape that drew me there. I needed to experience this captivating place of endless, glimmering salt, before its total transformation.
I was excited by the idea of telling a story where the salt flat was the central character.
I connected with a ﬁxer living in Bolivia and together we ventured to the vast salt ﬂat. I felt compelled to meet the salt gatherers, the saleros, who had a daily, tactile relationship with the earth.
For days, we wandered around the blinding landscape, sharing coca leaves with the saleros in exchange for conversation. That’s how I met Moises. His sense of purpose and his intimate connection to the earth was unlike anything I had witnessed before. His lifestyle felt like one from a previous age, one that technology has since erased from the modern human experience.
Moises believed, unwaveringly, that his job as a salt gatherer would be passed on to his sons and carried through for generations. The longer we spoke, the more I became consumed with curiosity about his life and his outlook on the world. Would he have to say goodbye to everything he loved?
Two weeks later, I returned to Salar de Uyuni with audio equipment to record Moises and to figure out how to tell his story.
Hours after I arrived, however, local communities unexpectedly erected a blockade and set fire to the train line to protest against the government’s failure to build a new road. They sealed off all modes of transportation and I found myself trapped on Moises’s side of the blockade.
What had originally been planned as a few hours of conversation turned into six days of close interaction with Moises and his family. I recorded nearly 12 hours of voice-over where Moises spoke not only about his personal experience, but also shared remarkable insights about the world at large and events far beyond his small town of Colchani. Much more than the voice of one man, or of one region, his words seemed to reveal something about the human condition: that to a large extent, cultural identity is shaped by the friction between tradition and progress.
By the time the blockade was lifted, Moises and I had begun a conversation that would develop over ﬁve years and ultimately became the ﬁlm Salero.
Over the years, Moises’ experience raised more and more questions: How would he come to terms with leaving behind his identity? How does our connection to a place deﬁne who we are? What does progress give to us and what does it take away? What can we preserve in a globalised world of constant change?
The narrative concept of Salero evolved far beyond what I had imagined when I started this film. At the outset, I anticipated a story of external conﬂict: I expected to bear witness to a traditional way of life as it was uprooted, cast aside, and replaced with modern industry. But what has become the focus of the film is the internal, emotional journey of a man who is forced to confront modernisation – and change his life.
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