LA PAZ -- President Evo Morales said Friday that Bolivia will invest as much as $200 million to develop the Andean nation's lithium deposits and that La Paz would welcome private partners in the effort as long as they accept the government's claim to 60 percent of the revenues.
At a news conference with international media, Morales referred to expressions of interest from Japan's Mitsubishi and Sumitomo, South Korean conglomerate LG and France's Bollore.
The socialist president said the state "will never lose ownership of the lithium," which, according to government estimates, is concentrated within a 15,000-sq. kilometer (5,791-sq. mile) expanse of the Uyuni Salt Flats in southwestern Bolivia.
He said companies wishing to play a role in Bolivia's lithium industry would have to accept the state's "absolute control" over the metal and the principle that La Paz is entitled to 60 percent of the profits.
Since taking office in January 2006, Morales has imposed the same model on the firms exploiting the country's estimated 48 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The Bolivian government is currently building a small processing plant in Uyuni to produce lithium carbonate for use in various manufacturing processes.
But the Morales administration wants to develop a large-scale lithium industry.
Bolivia's national mining director, Freddy Beltran, told Efe this week that the government is asking companies interested in the lithium initiative to present plans that include Bolivian factories to make lithium batteries for electric cars.
Meridian International Research, a consulting firm, says the Uyuni Salt Flats contain only 300,000 tons of readily extractable lithium and that any mining project in the region would have a high environmental cost.
But the U.S. Geological Service suggests that Uyuni holds 5.5 million tons of the metal.
The Bolivian government, meanwhile, points out that even if the lower estimate is correct, Uyuni would still have bigger reserves than those of the Atacama desert in neighboring Chile, scene of the world's largest lithium-mining operation.