POTOSI, Bolivia (AFP) – Protesters tightened their siege of the city of Potosi Saturday, as France’s ambassador cautioned that prolonged unrest could harm Bolivia’s tourism industry and threaten foreign investment in lithium mining.
More than 100 tourists from several countries have been trapped in this city of 160,000 people in southern Bolivia that has been paralyzed by a general strike, shutting off Potosi from the outside world for the past 10 days.
Local residents, miners and peasants — mainly opponents of the socialist central government — demand increased regional investment, including construction of a new cement factory and a larger airport.
French ambassador to La Paz Antoine Grassin cautioned that the prolonged unrest could harm the country’s tourism industry as well as crucial foreign investments aimed at reaching Bolivia’s lithium wealth.
Landlocked Bolivia is estimated to hold about half of the world’s total reserves of lithium, a key mineral used in rechargeable batteries as well as everything from cell phones and laptops to electric cars.
An estimated 100 million tons of Bolivian lithium lies under the Uyuni salt flats, an area of some 10,000 square kilometers (3,800 square miles) in Bolivia’s southeast. Bolivia has called on foreign investment to exploit the reserves.
French giant Bollore is among a group of foreign firms expected to pump billions of dollars into lithium mining in the coming years.
Grassin said the “clear insecurity” resulting from the regional unrest could pose a threat to potential investments.
“It is clear that these things happen in Bolivia, and we are used to such conflicts arising, but not when they last long,” Grassin said. He said that the French foreign ministry has put the Potosi region on a “tourist destination blacklist” because of the instability.
Grassin also said he formally conveyed France’s “concern” for the health and safety of 56 French tourists trapped in Potosi.
“There are some seniors in the group who have begun experiencing difficulties due to Potosi’s high altitude (about 4,000 meters, or 13,000 feet), including respiratory complications, and at least three or four of them should be evacuated,” Grassin said.
Argentine Franco Lenti, traveling through Bolivia by motorcycle with three friends, said they have been trapped in Potosi for eight days.
“We have been eating wherever we can, but now we hope to return home to our country,” Lenti said.
“The problems are understandable but (the protesters) should be more flexible with tourists,” the 29-year-old added.
Protesters have blocked all roads out of the mining town and tourist destination high in the Andes, including its airport. On Saturday the protests worsened with demonstrators launching hunger strikes and cutting a rail link to Chile, to the south.