By Ank Kuipers
PARAMARIBO (Reuters) - Companies from India, China and the Middle East have informally expressed interest in participating in a bauxite project in the jungle of western Suriname that could attract billions in investment, a Surinamese official said on Tuesday.
The South American country hopes to have awarded a concession for bauxite - the world's main source of aluminum - by this time next year, after decades of attempts to develop the ore.
"There's 324 million tons of bauxite there," Daniel Lachman, the chair of the presidential commission created to evaluate bids for the Bakhuis region, said in an interview.
He was citing proven reserves, but deposits could be larger.
Investment, potentially also from bidders from other regions, would be significant, he said.
"You are easily talking about $10 billion to $12 billion, but over a period of say around 10 years or a little longer. That's my rough estimate," Lachman said.
"The bauxite we have is service level bauxite. You don't have to create a mine. You just dig from the top," he added.
Companies will be able to formally express interest from Thursday through Jan. 29 next year.
Those who pass muster will be short-listed and asked to provide detailed plans, including how they would power a project, ahead of a planned awarding of the concession by November 2024.
The Suriname and Courantyne rivers could be dredged or cleared of rock formations to accommodate large ships, Lachman added.
Suriname's west is largely pristine jungle.
The commission is working to assess biodiversity risks, Lachman said, and proposals will be graded on how well they follow guidelines laid out by environmental regulators and the forestry management agency.
"I think we have to look beyond government revenue... to other things that are much more important," Lachman said.
Community approval, local employment and infrastructure development are important factors for the commission, which will not approve any project that does not take into account communities, he said.
(Reporting by Ank Kuipers; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Bill Berkrot)