Bolivian lithium plans hurts foreign companies: French envoy
Bolivia's new proposal to go solo in industrializing its rich lithium deposits leaves foreign companies, including France's Bollore-Eramet, out of the business, the French envoy to La Paz told AFP.
Lithium is widely used in rechargeable batteries for laptops, mobile phones and electric cars -- and an estimated 70 percent of the world's known lithium reserves are in Bolivia.
But the country's Socialist president, Evo Morales, said that Bolivia would not be satisfied in just becoming a provider of lithium as a raw material.
Bolivia wants to mine the lithium, then develop its own lithium battery industry in partnership with international companies, Morales said Thursday.
French Ambassador Antoine Grassin was unimpressed with Morales's ideas.
"Not only France, but also all foreign investors are out of the project," Grassin told AFP on Tuesday.
"This is not exactly what we hoped for," the ambassador said, referring to what he said were two years of negotiations and a Bollore-Eramet proposal for a plant that would handle the process from mining to battery production.
According to Grassin, "only two or three countries have mastered the technology to really be partners in Bolivia" regarding lithium -- Japan, South Korea and France.
Morales on Thursday said that the concerned companies "only want to invest in the purchase lithium carbonate," but then make the batteries in their own country.
Bollore-Eramet's proposal "clearly provides a battery factory in Bolivia, and the president knows," the ambassador said.
The lithium is found in Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world and one of Bolivia's top tourist venues near the border with Chile, 3,650 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level.
With demand for lithium expected to boom in coming years, Bolivia -- one of the poorest countries in South America -- is sitting on something potentially more valuable than a gold mine.
© 2010 AFP