LA PAZ – A mining subsidiary of Japan’s Sumitomo halted operations after peasants backing ongoing protests in the southwestern province of Potosi occupied a key power plant, the Bolivian government said Wednesday.
Mining Minister Jose Pimentel told a press conference at the presidential palace that around 500 peasants from the town of Yura occupied a power station that supplies electricity to the San Cristobal mine, which each day exports silver valued at $2 million.
Sumitomo – whose mining unit Minera San Cristobal S.A. has invested $1.4 billion to develop San Cristobal, the country’s largest open-pit silver mine – is the largest of several multinational firms that operate in Potosi, Bolivia’s leading mining region.
A general strike and roadblocks have paralyzed Potosi for the past two weeks and impeded travel to Chile and Argentine. The protesters are demanding the national government meet five demands related to regional development projects and another involving a boundary dispute with the neighboring province of Oruro.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said Wednesday that the conflict “is causing serious and widespread human rights violations.”
“In particular, the rights to travel, health, education and the economic and social rights of the most vulnerable groups have been affected,” the U.N. office said in a statement, in which it also called on regional leaders in Potosi and President Evo Morales’ government to show more flexibility in their attempts to negotiate a solution.
Foreign tourists trapped amid the protests have been gradually departing the city of Potosi, the provincial capital, taking advantage of a trip by a delegation of Potosi leaders to the south-central city of Sucre, French consul Frederic Laurent told Efe.
But another 15 tourists, 10 of them French, were unable to make their way past the roadblocks on Tuesday and had to return to Potosi, the consul said.
Morales’ administration and leaders of the Potosi civic committee tried unsuccessfully Tuesday to hold a new round of talks, marking the fifth breakdown in negotiations since the conflict began.
In addition to the general strike and road blockades, hundreds of people have been on hunger strike in Potosi and other regions to support the civic committee’s demands.
Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti, who joined Pimental at the press conference, expressed concern that radical groups in Potosi may try to occupy police offices and an army installation.
But the president of the civic committee, Celestino Condori, denied in a statement to Efe that the protesters would resort to violence.
“We’ve been mobilized for two weeks and there hasn’t been any spilling of blood, nothing. The peaceful people of Potosi are carrying out this strike in a very transparent manner,” he said. EFE