Bolivia is a country with a long mining tradition. Mining is deeply entrenched in Bolivian society, making current mining conflicts often very complex, involving many different stakeholders.
Already before the Spaniards came, in the 16th century, metals were being extracted. During colonization the Spaniards eagerly exploited the resources of the country. One of their most important discoveries was Cerro Rico in Potosí, discovered in 1545 –a mountain that was so rich in silver, it easily filled the Spanish treasury during its colonial conquests. After the Bolivian independence of 1825, the mining sector remained in the hands of a very wealthy elite. Change came in the 1950s, when some Bolivian revolutionary elites aimed for the nationalization of the mining sector. The COMIBOL (Corporación Minera de Bolivia) arose and played an important social and economic role for some decennia. However, this did not last long. From the ‘80s onwards, neoliberal regimes brought a renewed privatisation of the sector. Everything was put in place to attract foreign capital by creating a favourable tax regime and minimizing regulations etc. These measures have attracted big mining multinationals like Glencore, Newmont Mining, Pan American Silver, still active in the country today. These companies discharged thousands of miners who used to be employed through COMIBOL. A large part of these miners started organizing themselves in cooperatives to continue extracting minerals. About 20 years later, these cooperatives have often grown into small businesses that work by the same logic as the private sector.
The neoliberal tendency of the last decennia remarkably continues under the leftist regime of president Evo Morales. Upon his appointment, he put the care for Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) on top of the agenda – a care that is deeply embedded culturally, especially with the Bolivian indígenas. Despite his ecological discourse, the number of large-scale mining projects, which extract minerals in an industrialized manner (open-pit mining) increased during his mandate. In this way, the Bolivian export of minerals continues to increase, but only 10% of the value of the export remains in the country. The new mining law, which has been approved in 2014, clearly favours the mining sector and makes it easier both for mining companies and for cooperatives to obtain mining concessions. This also implies that these companies will officially be able to obtain concessions in natural parks. Not only has this increased the number of given concessions, but it has also caused a strong expansion towards tropical areas and the Amazon rainforest. The protesting voice of Pacha Mama can only be heard somewhere far in the background.
The long mining activity has inevitably led to many incidents that have had a huge impact on the environment. In a few mining areas, the whole ecosystem has already been irreversibly damaged. Such has been the case in the river basin of the Desaguadero River, in the department of Oruro. Mining operations from Glencore, Newmont Mining and many others simply dump their mining waste in the rivers which flow via the Desaguadero into the lakes of Uru Uru and Poopó. This has made it impossible to practice traditional activities (fishing, cattle breeding and agriculture) without the facing complications or health hazards. The government proclaimed the entire zone as a disaster area, but regrettably this has not led to any specific actions to protect the area against further pollution and thus protect the local people. Moreover, the recent expansion towards tropical lowlands is alarming. The search for gold leads to an enormous pollution of the water basins because of the use of mercury. Additionally, the expansion of mining leads to massive deforestation.
Bolivia thus continues to be characterised by an economy that is mostly focused on the extraction of natural resources; metals such as silver, gold, zinc, tin, copper, but also oil, natural gas and growing soya, all constitute the backbone of the economy. A lot of hope rested on the leftist regime, but, thus far, it has not brought about any change. As long as the country doesn’t focus on alternatives, hopes for the future seem dire.