Bolivians In Favor of Steel Mill Take Ministers Hostage

BRASILIA, Brazil, April 20, 2006 (ENS) - Bolivians protesting government plans to deny permission for a Brazilian company to build a steel mill in a forest reserve blocked the Bolivian-Brazilian border and took three Bolivian ministers hostage for a brief period Tuesday.

The Bolivian ministers of Planning, Carlos Villegas; Economic Development, Celinda Sosa; and Mining, Walter Villarroel were taken hostage in the city of Porto Suarez, located some 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the border with Brazil.

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Bolivian Economic Development Minister Celinda Sosa was among the ministers held hostage Tuesday. (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
The ministers were all rescued several hours later without anyone being injured, according to the official news agency Agência Brasil.

The ministers were taken hostage by protesters who have been demonstrating in 10 Bolivian minicipalities, demanding that the Bolivian government permit a Brazilian holding company, EBX Siderurgia de Bolívia S.A., to build a steel mill in Bolivia's Germán Busch province in the department of Santa Cruz.

EBX is a a Brazilian-controlled holding company which seeks to build the steel mill, estimated to cost US$268 million. EBX says it would create 620 direct jobs and another 5,000 indirect jobs.

The official Bolivian position regarding the EBX endeavor was expressed by the Vice Minister of Government Rafael Puente, who said, "The company is clearly illegal and they want to implant [a steel mill] in an area where such activity is expressly prohibited by the Constitution."

According to Puente, the area is a forest reserve. He went on to say that the government would not bow to pressure from the population of Porto Suarez as that "would mean a violation of the Constitution."

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Site of the planned EBX steel mill in Bolivia (Photo courtesy Agencia Popular Brasil)
In a statement, EBX says that the enterprise is "completely sustainable, in that it uses only local natural resources, and ecologically friendly."

The company said that Vice Minister Puente is mistaken in his assertion that EBX is not a legally constituted firm. EBX said it is duly registered in Bolivia where it pays taxes.

The note explains that EBX is active in mining, metals, energy, forestry, water and sanitation.

EBX complains that the government of Bolivian President Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president, has not given the company an opportunity to explain its steel mill project. EBX says that local authorities have made it difficult for the firm to get an environmental permit.

In its statement, EBX says that the project was discussed at length with the former government of Bolivia.

The company says on its website that "EBX strives to ensure that all its projects are environmentally correct and socially responsible."

One of its main concerns, the company says, "is to implement preventive and compensatory measures during the initial phases of its projects, based on water quality analyses and studies of the impact of the EBX Group activities."