Bolivia

A Dark Past in the Bolivian Silver Mines

- By Dr Donna Yates

Miners march through La Paz

Bolivia, a complicated and beautiful land-locked country at the heart of the Andes, is endowed with some of the most valuable mineral deposits in the world. Yet despite its vast resources, Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America and one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Bolivia is also the most Indigenous country in the Americas: from 55 to 75% of the population self-identifies as unmixed Indigenous Amerindian. Since the middle of the 16th century, both racial conflict and the realities of the mines have been central to the political and cultural lives of Bolivians.

Shortly after the Spanish Conquest of South America, the fantastic silver lode of Cerro Rico de Potosí was discovered in what is now Bolivia. Over the next 200 years around 2 billion ounces (56,700 metric tons) of pure silver were extracted from the mountain. Potosí can be considered the 16th century’s largest industrial complex and the city quickly grew to be one of the most populous in the Americas.

The practicalities of the exploitation of Potosí have directly influenced the social fabric of modern Bolivia. From around 1570 until the pan-South American revolution of the 1820s, the Spanish Colonial government imposed the so-called ‘mit’a system’ on Indigenous
communities. This corvée labour system compelled communities to provide a set number of able-bodied males each year to work in the mines. Conditions at Potosí were deplorable. Estimates of the number of Indigenous people who died as a result range from hundreds of thousands
to millions. However, to a certain extent, the mit’a system was a devil’s bargain. In exchange for this human tax, Indigenous communities were left largely alone: Indigenous leadership structures were maintained, Indigenous lifeways were preserved, and Indigenous language and religion survived. Bolivia is what it is today because of the scars of the mines.

The Miner: A Bolivian Icon
In the centuries since silver was discovered at Potosí, Bolivia has experienced a continuous boom and bust cycle of resource discovery, exploitation, privatisation, and collapse. Silver was followed by tin, zinc, tungsten, bismuth, and antimony. Mining rights were historically held by private companies and most of the resulting minerals were exported. Recently, largely-Indigenous Bolivian mining collectives have emerged as a vocal and salient force for social change because of their unique place at the centre of Indigenous identity, institutionalised racism, and foreign commoditisation of natural resources. The plight of the Bolivian miner is a common theme in the music, literature, and art of all of South America and the image of organized miners marching with hardhats and sticks of dynamite is synonymous with Bolivian popular protest.

In December 2005, Evo Morales was elected as Bolivia’s first Indigenous president. Morales came to power with promises of re-nationalisation of Bolivian mineral reserves and the more equitable sharing of extraction rights among Indigenous mining collectives. This expropriation and nationalisation process has not always gone smoothly and the mining situation in Bolivia is something to watch.

To cite one recent example: the tin and zinc mines near the town Colquiri had been operated by a subsidiary of the Swiss company Glencore since 2005. Citing systemic problems with management of mining operations, the independent mining cooperatives working at Colquiri seized the mines in May 2012 in clashes that left 18 workers injured. Union leaders demanded nationalisation, and in June 2012 the Bolivian government expropriated the mine. This is not the first time that the Morales government has nationalised former Glencore holdings.The situation quickly descended into confusion as different mining collectives fought with each other and with employees of the state mining corporation over the right to mine at Colquiri. Throughout autumn 2012, Bolivia was crippled by protests from competing mining groups. La Paz was blockaded and small-scale clashes resulted in several injuries.

By the end of September an agreement was reached: the vein at Colquiri was split into seven smaller sections, each to be worked by a different mining group. The solution was viewed as fair by all parties; however, the agreement came at a significant financial and social cost. As expropriation and nationalisation of mining interests proceeds, we must ask how the government plans to ensure that miners are given an equitable stake in the fruits of their labour for the first time in Bolivian history.

Lithium: The future?
Perhaps the most exciting prospect for the future of fair and equitable Bolivian mining is lithium. With an estimated 5.5 million tons of reserve lithium located in the Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia is home yet again to the majority of one of the most highly-sought substances in the world. Lithium batteries power the world’s mobile phones and laptops, and the potential for Bolivia to transform global demand for lithium into funds for development is great.

However, the infrastructure for lithium extraction in Bolivia does not exist and it is unclear exactly what shape the future of lithium mining in Bolivia will take. Ethical users of lithium-based products must ask the Bolivian government a number of questions: Will we see a slow creep of foreign companies into Bolivian lithium extraction, or will lithium mining rights remain with the state? What stake will local mining cooperatives have in the process and what tangible improvements to their quality of life will they see from increased global interest in lithium? What happens to them when inevitable bust follows this lithium boom? Will demand and desperation create a new Potosí or will the Bolivian government stay true to its ideals?

This week we will be interviewing former Bolivian Minister of Mines Jose Pimentel to ask some of these questions. Look out for more content on Bolivia.

 

Photo by Léo Guellac

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