Mining Conflicts and The Politics of Post-Nationalization Bolivia

La Paz – Protests between rival mining groups have been growing in power and intensity over the past three weeks. As the conflict continues to swell, blockades have gone up across Bolivia, virtually crippling transport in and out of La Paz.

Miners' road blockades outside La Paz, BoliviaLa Paz – Protests between rival mining groups have been growing in power and intensity over the past three weeks. However, the demonstrations began as early as two months ago. Walking through different parts of La Paz, one could see large groups of miners – obvious because of their mining helmets and clothing – holding signs and holding small congresses with people passing by and policemen. Tuesday, September 18, 2012, the protest between the two rival camps erupted into violence, resulting in the death of one miner and the injury of at least seven more.  As the conflict continues to swell, blockades have gone up across Bolivia, virtually crippling transport in and out of La Paz.

The conflict is between private miner cooperatives that are common across Bolivia and the unionized miners that work for the state.  In line with the trend of nationalization in Bolivia, President Evo Morales recently ousted a Swiss multi-national corporation from the valuable Colquiri mine located near La Paz.  The most lucrative part of the mine is said to have nearly 5 billion mineral deposits. Morales divided control for the mine between the two camps, which are now at the heart of the conflict.  The cooperatives want one hundred percent exploration rights of the mine, which puts the Morales government – the heroes of the nationalization movement in Bolivia – in a difficult position.

Al Jazeera reporter, Gabriel Elizando, rightfully points out in his report of the situation that this conflict is “historic and symbolic for what Bolivia as a country is going through right now… working itself through a post-nationalization period.  The questioning this country is no longer, ‘Can Bolivia take back natural resources into their own hands?’ They have proven that they can and they will. The question now is how to divide up those resources afterwards to avoid the deadly conflicts we have seen this week”

However, as evidenced by the growing numbers of other Bolivian social movements setting up blockades alongside the miners, this conflict may represent something more complex than who owns this particular mine.  While walking through the blockade between the capital city of the North Yungas, Coroico, and La Paz, it was obvious that this conflict was much larger than the rights to the Colquiri mine.  Thousands of protesters gathered along the sides of the road in makeshift tent cities, piling more rocks into the blockaded road. Miners positioned themselves on the rocks, making sure that no cars passed. While the blockade seemed relatively calm, the sporadic dynamite explosions were constant reminders of the miner’s demands.

When asked about the blockade, several miners mentioned that the conflict was very complex, and remained relatively tight-lipped about the exact details.  When asked about the purpose of the blockade, one independent miner smiled and said that it was “very, very complicated… a long story.”

Dirk Hoffmann, director of the Instituto Boliviano de la Montaña, explained: “Historically, Bolivia is a mining country, and the ‘Código Minero’ (mining law) stands virtually above other legislation.  There is some hope that once the Ley de la Madre Tierra (Law of the Mother Earth) is going to be signed by President Morales, environmental issues might be of higher relevance.  But then, mining is still a main pillar of the country’s economy, so that might be an illusion.”

Elizabeth Peredo, director of the Bolivian human rights and research organization, Fundación Solón, responded similarly: “This issue is part of the reality that our country has become a supplier of raw materials: minerals and unprocessed food for the world… I do not think that governments have the ability to set more sustainable policies to care for Mother Earth, despite the rhetoric that adorns the constitutions and legal frameworks.”

The strength of Bolivian civil society defines Bolivia.  Civil disobedience, protests, and social movements are more or less a cornerstone of contemporary Bolivian culture.  Living here, it is not uncommon to have to walk an hour or so because of some strike or protest taking place in La Paz, but this current conflict has swept across the entire country.  It is not too surprising, as mining is Bolivia’s second largest industry, but the rapidity and inclusion of other social movements is intriguing.

There have been rumors of counter-protests staged by the unionized workers, demanding some kind of resolution from the Morales government.  The conflict will only grow more intense.  The miners are only one sect of Bolivia’s capable civil society that want a say in the current political stasis of Bolivia. The protests and blockades will likely continue until there is resolution, which depends largely upon which way the Morales government swings on this decision.

To echo Elizando, this current conflict is historic and symbolic, but it is not only about nationalization.  It is more complex.  Peredo believes these protests represent a confluence of “dynamic corporate and social sector organizations struggling for specific interests but are devoid of a national vision,” and that, “This unfortunately has been fostered by a way of exercising power and policy management from the central government, which has shown a minimal consistency in its principles and values ​​that arose early in the last decade thanks to popular struggles.”

Depending on the response from the Morales government, it could be about what is the next political step for an increasingly ambivalent Bolivian civil society, the same one that put him in office nearly a decade ago.

Dylan Harris is a writer and political ecologist from the United States, living and doing research in Bolivia.