- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

SAN IGNACIO DE VELASCO, Bolivia | Iran’s worldwide search for uranium to feed its nuclear program has sparked a local revolt in this marshy town in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, whose inhabitants are alarmed by plans to extract radioactive minerals from a nearby mountain.

Bolivian officials treat information about the uranium deposits in San Ignacio and other locations in Bolivia as a state secret. Chief ministers reacted indignantly to recent claims by Israel that Iran was receiving uranium from Bolivia and Venezuela.

“Bolivia is a peaceful nation that would never aid an effort by Iran or any other country to develop nuclear weapons,” said Presidency Minister Juan Ramon Quintana. He called Israel’s intelligence service “an agency of inept, incompetent clowns” for leaking a report about Bolivia’s uranium sales.

However, Bolivia’s leftist president, Evo Morales, has exchanged state visits with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and signed up to $1.2 billion in joint ventures.

“The issue has taken on a high profile recently because of the government’s agreements with Iran, which include mineral projects,” said Jose Padilla, chief mining inspector for the provincial government of Santa Cruz, which has jurisdiction over San Ignacio and is a bastion of opposition to Mr. Morales.

The prospect of exploiting Bolivia’s uranium also troubles leaders of some Indian factions that form the base of Mr. Morales’ ruling party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).

“We need to ask what Iran’s real interest is in Bolivia,” said Roman Loayza, a MAS dissident who is running against Mr. Morales in presidential elections scheduled for December. “Evo has no business entering into agreements with foreign interests at the back of the Bolivian people which could harm our environment,” Mr. Loayza told The Washington Times.

Bolivian officials insist that Iran’s activities in Bolivia are benign. Iran’s ambassador has toured Indian communities and promised to finance development projects.

Mr. Morales has said that Iran wants to build a radio and TV station in his home district of Chapare to “support the peasant struggle in South America.”

Iranian movies are regularly broadcast over Bolivia’s state-run TV channel and a Muslim preacher even delivered services at a state-sponsored event earlier this month.

According to studies by private mining companies, Bolivia possesses significant quantities of high-grade uranium comparable to the world’s most important uranium mines in Canada and Australia.

Iran has limited indigenous uranium, not enough for an ambitious plan to build more than a dozen nuclear power plants. Iran’s only civilian reactor project at Bushehr gets fuel from Russia and has yet to start operation despite years of work.

Indian inhabitants around Manomo, a mountain that means “sleeping man” in native Guarani, have said that its bald, rounded top glows at night. Underground mine shafts and open pits are visible at various points along the mountain’s side and barren peak.

Mincruz, a Santa Cruz mining company, reported that an analysis of 280 rock samples extracted last year shows a 2.4 percent uranium content, which is considered of “high value.”

Mr. Morales tried to impose military control over San Ignacio and areas surrounding Manomo by deploying 3,000 troops in May. Eduardo Cisneros, a local cattle rancher, told The Times that government officials escorted by troops broke into his property to access the mountain.

Mr. Morales said at the time that the army had been sent to fight drug trafficking. The deputy governor for San Ignacio, Aurelio Vaca, told The Times that the colonel heading the operation spoke of plans to build a large military base with an airstrip.

That resulted in daily protests in San Ignacio and adjacent towns, where mayors and civic leaders led opposition to the troop presence by calling a general strike.

The military withdrew last month when protesters clashed with troops as Mr. Morales tried to hold a rally in San Ignacio.

Mr. Vaca said the government still planned to build a city for 2,000 peasant supporters from the capital, La Paz, that it wants to resettle around San Ignacio as part of a land redistribution program.

“They would declare a new municipal government that would have jurisdiction over Manomo,” Mr. Vaca said.

“This would neutralize our authority to withhold environmental permits for any further mining,” said the mayor of San Ignacio, Ervin Mendez, at a recent town meeting. Loose radioactive particles could contaminate a local lake that Bolivia shares with Brazil, he said.

“My people’s livelihood depends on fishing in that lake,” said Antonio Suarez, a local activist. “If underground mountain streams, which feed it become contaminated, it would destroy our way of life. It’s better if the mountain is left sleeping.”

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