TOKYO – Japan and Bolivia agreed to cooperate on the development of large-scale lithium reserves in the Andean nation, while an electricity project will see a resumption of lending to Bolivia for the first time since Tokyo forgave La Paz’s debt in 2006.
Bolivian President Evo Morales concluded his second official visit to Japan on Wednesday with a meeting with Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who expressed interest in “working with Bolivia” to gain access to lithium and other natural resources his country lacks.
In a joint statement, the two leaders agreed to cooperate on the development of a lithium industry at Bolivia’s massive Uyuni Salt Flats and on construction of a geothermal power plant, both in the southwestern province of Potosi.
The Laguna Colorada plant is to be built thanks to a Japanese loan, the first such credit since Japan forgave the Andean nation’s foreign debt four years ago, Morales said.
The yen-denominated loan will enable construction of a 50 MW plant, according to the statement, which said the power station’s capacity could later be expanded by another 50 MW “taking into account the cooperation between both countries, including with respect to lithium.”
“Japan is the only country to forgive (our debt) and then later begin to provide loans to Bolivia,” Morales said, adding that he returned to Tokyo to express his “admiration and respect.”
Morales was received for a second time at the Imperial Palace by Emperor Akihito and on this occasion was invited to lunch, an honor the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy only bestows on roughly a dozen world leaders each year.
Japanese officials told the president of their interest in accessing Bolivia’s large reserves of lithium, the main component in rechargeable batteries that power electronic devices and electric and hybrid vehicles.
Bolivia is said to hold more than half of the world’s lithium reserves, while Morales puts that figure at 70 percent and says 100 million tons of lithium are ready to be extracted from the Uyuni Salt Flats, a 10,000-square kilometer (almost 4,000-square-mile) white expanse some 12,000 feet above sea level.
On Wednesday, Japanese Economy Minister Akihiro Ohata offered technological cooperation with Bolivia’s nascent lithium industry in exchange for assurances of a steady supply of the world’s lightest metal to the Asian nation.
Morales, who for months has listened to offers from various countries interested in Bolivia’s lithium reserves, reiterated during a press conference in Tokyo that Bolivia wants “partners not owners.”
The socialist president is adamant that potential partners must present plans for factories in the Andean nation to manufacture lithium-ion batteries and even electric vehicles, as opposed to merely carrying away raw lithium carbonate.
The socialist president praised Japan and said it “could be an excellent partner,” considering his government’s experience with automotive giants Nissan, Toyota and Mitsubishi, which he termed the Asian country’s “identity and pride.”
A month ago, an agreement was signed between state-owned Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation and Bolivia’s Comibol state mining corporation that calls for Sumitomo and Mitsubishi to send experts and equipment to a lithium carbonate pilot plant at Uyuni.
Under the terms of the deal, those two private companies will support efforts to produce value-added lithium by-products in the Andean nation. EFE