Nationalization and Neglect: Unregulated Mining in Rural Bolivia

In the rural municipality of San Antonio de Lomerío, in the eastern department of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, farmers are trading their usual day of rest, Sunday, for more work. Instead of the usual cultivation of yucca and corn, however, the farmers extract Tungsten from a hillside mine with no safety or environmental protections.

Run by a private concessionaire from the city of Santa Cruz, the Lomerío mine is one of many unregulated private mines found throughout Bolivia and neglected by President Evo Morales’s mining plan. Lomerío is legally titled as a Communal Territory of Origin (TCO), a denomination reserved for indigenous nations and created by the National Institute of Agrarian Reform Law in 1996. The law was designed in part to incorporate indigenous systems of land holding into the institution of private property, and it recognized the communal lands and traditional territories of indigenous nations as independent entities for the first time. In congruence with tradition and the law, the TCO is administered by the Indigenous Union of Original Communities of Lomerío (CICOL), composed of caciques, or chiefs. The Caciques are chosen by community members in a grand assembly to oversee community justice and head decision-making processes on issues of communal importance.

ImageOne of the defining factors of the TCO of Lomerío is the communal ownership of land. Land meaning soil, that is, for agricultural use. Under Bolivian law, subsoil is the property of the state to be rented to concessionaires. Past government efforts to attract foreign investors have made obtaining a mining concession as simple as paying a fee. According to Mario Velasco, Chief of the Environmental Unit at the Ministry of Mining and Metallurgy, an environmental license, is issued to concessionaires after one year. The license requires compliance with health and pollution regulations. However, the concessionaires in Lomerío have operated for two years and have yet to present any environmental license, as is often the case in remote rural areas where there is little central government presence.

While the mining legislation backs the concessionaires’ rights to subsoil access, over the past two decades the growing indigenous and peasant movements of Bolivia have encouraged communities to protect their territory and often physically block outside parties from entering. Thus, while in the past some miners exploited the remote areas of Lomerío clandestinely, even the legal concessionaires did not enter the areas close to Chiquitano communities, for fear of reprisals. Finally, however, the economic needs of the communities outweighed the environmental damage of mining, and the Chiquitanos pushed their leaders to negotiate with the eager mining companies. Mariano Choré, Chief of Economy at CICOL, explains, "we did not let the concessionaires enter for years . . . but finally we thought, when are we going to take advantage of our resources? There are a lot of needs to be met."

When CICOL finally struck an informal deal with the Santa Cruz based concessionaire Puerta del Sol, they were not sure of the market value of their Tungsten and accepted the concessionaire’s offer of seven dollars per kg. Lucky for the community, Velasco explains, "It is really the highest price possible for this type of artisanal [unmechanized] mining." Tungsten sells for $10-12 in the city of Oruro, where many of Bolivia’s buyers and refineries are located. Other rural communities have not been so lucky, and have been cheated out of their mineral deposits for a pittance. Because the quantity extracted is so small and the process so inefficient, it will be difficult to improve the incomes of the Chiquitano miners until the process is industrialized and more vehicles and machinery enter the premises, something CICOL and many locals do not want.

The municipality of San Antonio de Lomerío is trying to take steps to hold the concessionaire accountable, something that could cause conflict with the locals, whose need for greater income trumps many other concerns. The municipality as a political structure is often mistrusted by indigenous people, not only because it is a foreign form of governance that excludes both indigenous leaders and traditional forms of decision making, but also because it has a history of corruption and is often run by mestizo or white Bolivians who do not have the best interest of indigenous residents in mind. Several years ago, San Antonio de Lomerío successfully petitioned to separate from the larger municipality of Concepción to become an independent indigenous municipality, where the municipal officials come from the almost exclusively Chiquitano population.

While this change has improved relations with the population, the municipality continues to be dominated by traditional political parties regarded with suspicion by many residents. Community members still tend to place their trust in CICOL, where they bring their demands and needs, including their need for income from mining. The municipal government, on the other hand, has the obligation and desire to enforce what legal regulations it can for the safety and the environment of the municipality. Says municipality councilman Agustin Chuvé, "[the concessionaires] have shown us no license for their machinery, nor their environmental license. They have the concession for prospecting, but the quantity being extracted is more than that." The municipality is in the process of forming an official demand for the concessionaire’s environmental license, but technically has no power to enforce such a demand, which is the authority of the Ministry. Pushing the subject too far, however, would be risky, as residents have become dependent on the mining income and would be outraged if the mine were to close.

So the farmers-turned-miners of Lomerío continue to eke Tungsten from the hill with only rudimentary tools, and without safety equipment, accident or health insurance, or proper safety training. They then wash it free of dirt and other minerals, dumping the contaminated water into the river.

ImageA day’s work can result in anywhere from 200 mg to 2 full kg of unrefined Tungsten, which at seven dollars per kilogram means a significant sum for a peasant household. According to the National Institute of Statistics of Bolivia, nearly 100% of Lomerío’s inhabitants live below the poverty line, surviving on subsistence agriculture. In order to participate into the national economy and achieve what many see as an increase in quality of life, surplus income is a necessity.

Many Lomerío parents dream of sending their children to college, not only so they can achieve individual success, but also so they can return to help the community with their acquired skills and knowledge. For most, the expenses of university are a far-off dream, both geographically (the 8 hour bus ride along miserable dirt roads to Santa Cruz) and economically (city living is incredibly expensive for the peasant families). Despite these obstacles, a few students have been funded by a combination of scholarships and community funding efforts. Even sending children to high school is a sacrifice, as it means that they are unavailable for work in the fields. "Mining satisfies needs and helps the economy," says the Cacique of the community of San Lorenzo in Lomerío, Miguel Chore. "Especially now that our children are going to high school, it helps cover expenses."

Yet the long-term costs, with respect to health and environmental degradation, have yet to be counted. Dr. Nevert Aguilera of the Swiss Red Cross has worked in Lomerío for years and warns, "Artisanal mining like this, with no insurance or protection, has been known to cause silicosis." Community members are not unaware of the physical dangers, which could impede both mining and agricultural work. Maria Luisa Cesari of San Lorenzo has family members work in the mine. "What if a rock lands on your foot?" she asks. "What can you do?" Such an injury could leave a worker with no form of income at all.

The health and environmental consequences of mining are being sidelined by the current socialist government, which is focusing on the economic issues and sovereignty over natural resources. While the partial nationalization of mining has been a part of President Evo Morales’s agenda since he took office in January of 2006, a bloody conflict between state-salaried miners and private cooperative miners at the Huanuni tin mine last October left 16 dead and brought the issue to the spotlight.

ImageThe administration claims to pursue a mixed system of mining, both revitalizing and amplifying the state sector while encouraging private mines and investment. The government has demonstrated this mixed strategy over the past several months with the expropriation of the Swiss company Glencore International’s tin smelter in Vinto, Oruro, and the contrasting government contract with the Indian mining company Jindal Steel & Power Limited. Jindal is involved in the private extraction of iron from one of the world’s largest deposits in Mutún, Santa Cruz.

The government expects to earn up to $300 million a year from the steep taxes it has worked into the contract with Jindal. Glencore, however, was not compensated, as the government claims the sale of the state-owned smelter, privatized in 1999, was illegal in the first place. But while the government is improving its economic gains from large-scale mining enterprises, small-scale mining operations pay little to no taxes. President Evo Morales’s recent attempt to raise taxes on private mining entities failed due to intense protests by the privately-owned cooperatives. The incorporation of more cooperatives into the state mining structure is slowly progressing, but with little support by the cooperative miners, who prefer renewed private access to state mines such as Huanuni.

Small non-cooperative private mines like the one in Lomerío have been mostly left out of the equation. The relatively tiny amount of minerals being extracted, lack of competition with state mines, and remote nature of these mines means they have avoided attention—and regulation. But while the cooperatives and state-salaried miners are organized and able to negotiate with the government in the nationalization process, the farmer-miners of Lomerío continue to be isolated, uninformed about their rights, and forgotten by the ministry charged with protecting them.

While the extraction of natural resources has the potential to supplement the incomes of campesinos and significantly improve their economic possibilities, dependence on mining enterprises for income should not compromise the health and safety of the laborers. Furthermore, while indigenous organizations like CICOL have the right to negotiate their own contracts with private mining entities, changes in the mining laws would help them improve the terms of those contracts and assure fair compensation for their resources. The most constructive legal additions would give indigenous organizations legal control over both superficial and subsoil territory, as well as some authority to demand proper environmental and health conditions of the mining operation, or even direct it themselves.

With or without nationalization, in a country where the state has very little presence in remote rural areas, clandestine and unsafe mines will continue to operate if the scope and funding of government supervision does not improve.