Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Dispatches: Bolivian Tin Miners Reconciled

Reading Time: 6 minutesA precarious peace holds at Bolivia’s largest tin mine.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

One recent morning at 4:30 am, several ghostly figures gathered on a windswept, deserted street corner in Oruro, Bolivia. They climbed aboard a crowded minivan for a journey that would take them 37 miles (60 kilometers) south and several miles under the earth to Huanuni, site of the country’s largest tin mine.

Nearly 1,400 mineworkers from Oruro and other feeder towns in the region make this daily commute seven days a week. Working in total darkness—lit only by the lights of their helmets—they spend the next eight hours under Huanuni’s Posokoni Mountain in comradely silence, watching out for each other’s safety. Only an informed observer would know that some of these same workers tried to kill each other four years ago.

On October 5 and 6, 2006, Huanuni was the scene of one of Bolivia’s most violent labor battles. Two rival groups of miners fought for control of the rights to Huanuni reserves in a conflict that embroiled the national government and transformed the country’s mining sector. When it was over, at least 16 people were dead, several hundred were injured, and the country’s mining minister had lost his job.

While the tin miners are no longer at war with one another, they are still in a precarious situation. Working in one of the world’s most dangerous mines, plagued by heat and stifling toxic gases, they rely on alcohol, drugs and coca leaves to tolerate their environment. They are exposed to pulmonary illnesses and other diseases, and many of them die before their children are grown.

And as a sign of how delicate the political situation remains, most will only talk frankly if their identities are kept anonymous.

“We know the mine is killing us,” says one drill worker. “But what are we going to do? The only thing to do is save our money [and hope] to get out early. But that is difficult. I know I will work down here until I die.”

Harsh Life, Tough Politics

Labor peace at Huanuni has, in fact, only underlined the unresolved issues that plague Bolivia’s mining sector. In many respects, very little has changed over the past several centuries. Since the pre-colonial era, when the Incas mined silver in the highlands, the country’s mineral riches have been a source of both wealth and misery. Bolivia’s nineteenth-century tin mines enriched a handful of “tin barons,” such as the famous Simón Iturri Patiño, while those who performed the backbreaking labor under harsh conditions deep inside the mountains received poverty wages.

They still do. Not surprisingly, miners have always been at the forefront of the struggle for Bolivian workers’ rights. In 1952, the Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers’ Unions (FSTMB), a union with Communist leanings (and founded in the Huanuni mine) fought against the troops of General Hugo Banzer. In that same year, Bolivia’s mines were nationalized and came under the control of the state-owned Bolivian Mining Corporation, known by its Spanish initials as COMIBOL. The Bolivian miners emerged as one of the region’s most radical forces for change. In 1967, many Bolivian miners joined Che Guevara’s efforts to spread revolution across Latin America and took up arms in his guerrilla brigades. Even today, most of the miners have proudly pasted stickers of El Che on their helmets.

But the solidarity among miners began to erode in the early 1970s, when a small number of private mining cooperatives, which were independent of COMIBOL, were allowed to tap mineral resources in the upper, less profitable parts of Posokoni Mountain under rental agreements. Within a decade, the private-public balance of mining interests had been transformed. The 1985 collapse of the tin market on the London Metal Exchange threw more than 30,000 state-employed miners out of work. At the same time, with the country beset by hyper-inflation, then-President Víctor Paz Estenssoro opened the country’s mining sector to foreign investment. Government Decree 21060 effectively ended the state’s monopoly on mining.

As COMIBOL production was scaled down, the private cooperative sector expanded. By 2006, there were 4,000 cooperative workers in Huanuni, compared to just 800 miners receiving a salary from COMIBOL. Complicating the issue was increasing ambiguity over who actually owned the tin reserves at Huanuni. The Huanuni mine was privatized in 2000, with ownership passing to a firm from the United Kingdom that had pledged to make new capital investments.

The investments were never made, and after the firm transferred ownership to another company under questionable circumstances—in apparent violation of Bolivian law—ownership reverted to COMIBOL. The cooperatives, however, used uncertainty over the terms of the renationalization to set the stage for the coming conflict. Still confined by the earlier agreements to the upper and less productive parts of Posokoni Mountain, they demanded access to the lower, richer sectors.

New political clout

By then, the cooperative miners had not only grown in numbers, they had also gained political influence. The government of President Evo Morales had received financial and political support from the cooperative mine sectors, whose fortunes had increased with the revival of the global tin market. This dependency was reflected in the 2006 appointment of a former Huanuni cooperative miner, Wálter Villaruel, as Morales’ first Minister of Mining.

Villaruel quickly made clear where his interests lay,  as negotiations between COMIBOL and the cooperatives over access rights collapsed. He openly called for a cooperative takeover of the mine to settle the issue, raising hopes that a successful takeover might be legitimized by the government. But when it happened, the takeover degenerated into a vicious battle. After the smoke cleared, the COMIBOL faction emerged as the clear victor, thanks to the intervention of government authorities to stop the fighting. Wálter Villaruel was fired, and the government gave COMIBOL direct administrative powers over Huanuni’s tin reserves, effectively nationalizing the mine.

Tenuous reconciliation

Four years later, the nationalization seems to have had the hoped-for effect of ending the factional conflict. Former cooperative and former COMIBOL miners work side by side. They share coca leaves, cigarettes and food, talk about what earplugs and gas masks are the best, and ward off the mine’s devil deity together by pouring libations in his honor.

Whether this is the result of a genuine peace, or merely a reflection of the dangerous environment in which miners work, is hard to judge. In the Huanuni mine, solidarity is not an option but a necessity. To avoid accidents among their
work teams, the miners have to exchange information about their sleeping patterns, drowsiness and other personal conditions. Otherwise, accidents involving the heavy machinery, falling pieces of rock or high voltage cables are bound to happen.

Beneath the surface, however, painful memories linger. Many former salaried miners still remember how, during the fighting of 2006, the cooperatives rolled tires full of dynamite down Posokoni Mountain to blow up company facilities. These attacks threatened to ignite the company’s gasoline storage tanks and damage the oxygen pumps connected to the inside of the mine, endangering the lives of hundreds. Former salaried miners sometimes refer to the cooperative miners as llanteros (“tire-boys”), only half in jest. Now that cooperative mining is outlawed in Huanuni, former COMIBOL workers feel ideologically  vindicated by Bolivia’s full ownership of the country’s most important mine.

While some former cooperative workers complain that they have lost key freedoms, including the ability to manage their time and activities, many welcome the security of a regular income and health benefits. “In the cooperatives you had to worry about whether or not you would get some ore the next day,” one miner told me. “Now you simply do as you are told by the engineers and you get your salary.”

The apparent reconciliation, however, has only underlined the harsh challenges still faced by Huanuni’s mine workers. Working conditions underground remain abysmal. A veritable wasteland filled with slippery railroad tracks, loose high-voltage cables, pools of acid, and makeshift ladders, between two and four accidents occur in the mine every day.

“The mine consumes you”

As much as the miners would like control over the extractive process, they know that their lives are at stake whenever they begin a new working day. “The mine consumes you,” says one. “And the management has forgotten us,” adds another.

What is striking is that not even the union, the Sindicato Mixto de Trabajadores Mineros de Huanuni, seems to be doing much to address workers’ anxieties. Some safety inspectors complain that the union intimidates them whenever they try to enforce safety regulations.

They claim that when they tell a worker to wear his overalls, put on his rubber boots or stop drinking, that worker complains to the union, which in turn reprimands the safety inspector. By selling short-term favors to individual workers, the union thus seems to be neglecting a long-term safety policy.

Another major challenge at the Huanuni mine is to raise average worker productivity. Despite the increase in Huanuni’s labor force since nationalization, a recent study by the La Paz-based NGO Fundación Milenio showed that Huanuni’s production levels only increased from 600 to 700 tons per day in 2006 to 1,000 tons per day in 2010. This means that production per capita declined from 0.8 tons per worker per day to a mere 0.2 tons per worker per day.

Harking back to the days of mine worker solidarity, the former rivals in Posokoni Mountain are well aware they need to address these challenges together. Their union has proposed a suspension of salary increases in order to ensure further investment and future job certainty.

All fear a repeat of the 1980s catastrophe in the mining sector, when the slump in tin prices led to mass layoffs. Although the company board has officially ruled out cuts in the labor force, insisting that the mine’s current expansion plans will diversify and increase production, layoffs continue to loom on the horizon if increased production does not materialize.

That would be a new disaster for a place that has already seen more than its fair share of trouble and hardship.

Tags: Education, Felix Stein
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