Blood on the mine

By Published On: October 6, 2006Categories: Poverty1 Comment on Blood on the mine

The news splashed on the pages of the papers this morning was the traumatic report of 16 deaths and 80 injuries as a result of clashes between two groups of miners in Huanuni, a town south of La Paz. On the ground outside the Posokoni mine, the land was splashed  with blood.

The clash came apparently as a result of cooperativistas (who despite their name are really employees of private mining companies) trying to storm a state-owned mine whose workers then defended themselves against attack. The struggle broke out into an all-out war on the hills of the mine. Two groups of workers who usually sweat out in often miserable and harsh conditions to extract minerals were instead attacking each other with dynamite.

The conflict broke out after weeks of pressure from Cooperativistas to take a greater stake in the mine which is part owned by the State Mining Corporation, part private including an interest owned by a British company called RBG, ex-Allied Deals. The Government is being blamed for not anticipating the violence by sending in police earlier and for the inherent bias of the Mining  Ministry which is run by an ex-Cooperativista, Walter Villarroel.

A country born from and identified with mining is today grieving the loss of fourteen miners.  As the Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera said "What should have been a blessing for the country, to possess such natural riches, today has become a curse."

It sadly seems to be a curse of many countries rich in resources – look at Nigeria. It is certainly tragically true of Bolivia for centuries. Eight million indigenous people are said to have died in the 16th to 18th Centuries as a result of Spanish system of exploitation of Indian labour to extract silver. It’s an even more shocking figure when you consider that Bolivia has a population of eight million today.

This cycle of deaths has continued into the 21st Century. 67 people died in October 2003 calling for nationalisation of gas. Yesterday and today 14 people have died living grieving families as miners have fought against miners. The clash comes at a time when many in Bolivia saw great hope for the country in the rising prices of minerals in the world market.

The conflicts today can be traced back to the 1980s. At a time when Margaret Thatcher had set out on her mission to destroy the British miners, a similar policy was being carried out in Bolivia except this time on the behest of the IMF and at a time of crashing prices for tin.  Overnight 30,000 miners were laid off in 1985 causing a huge social and economic trauma that continues to have its consequences today.

Some headed to Chapare to grow coca; others set themselves up in cooperatives which turned instead into private mining firms employing workers in often desperate working conditions. In Potosi, the average life expectancy of a miner is thirty-five year with most dying of silocosis that crumbles their lungs. If I was a miner I would probably have a year to live.

Yet today, the victims of a policy written in Washington are fighting each other. In Chapare too, where ex-miners settled, two people died last week as a result of a drug-eradication scheme strangely supported by Evo Morales, an ex-coca grower using the language of "war against drugs" again designed in the US.

Across Bolivia, local conflicts are bubbling up in many places as frustrations grow at the fact that the grinding reality of poverty has failed to change despite the rhetoric, and I feel, usually good intentions of the new Government.  A potent mixture of poverty, injustice and private greed are feeding violence – and it will be a huge challenge to the Morales Government to deliver the practical changes in lives that can prevent it worsening.


One Comment

  1. james December 31, 2006 at 10:10 am - Reply

    The poor will stay poor under the goverment of Evo, just as they have since Spanish rule.
    There are many reason for this, some blame past goverments, and the Spanish as well. Evo just does not have the smarts to lead the Bolivian people out of poverty. Case in point, being a puppet of Chavez, Avo does not have the education to lead Bolivia, without asking Chavez first. Yes its justice to finally have an Indian as the leader of Bolivia, but Evo too will fail.
    What country in South America, has had success in eliminating poverty in the last 50 years? Corruption is the number one reason, money just does not trickle down to the people, and projects and programs for the poor fail for this reason. Too many hands in the caja chica.
    Let La Paz have its way for now, the people are riding high on Evo, but they too will tire of him, when he cant deliver on all his promises. Then they will block the streets, and call for his resignation. The constant cycle of Bolivian history will continue because the people are unrealistic of what the goverment should do for them. The need to start doing for themselves, and stop crying.
    “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” (JFK)

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