Miners’ strife in Bolivia leaves nine dead

We recently noted a violent struggle in Colombia’s Sierra San Lucas, where army and paramilitary troops, apparently in league with major gold-mining interests, are terrorizing small-scale independent campesino miners from their lands. A similar struggle now appears underway in Bolivia’s Oruro department—except this time, it is miner-versus-miner: the independent prospectors versus the unionized employees of the state mining company—and both sectors are a support base for Evo Morales, creating yet another dilemma for the populist president. From AP, Oct. 7:

Rival miners’ groups agreed to a cease-fire after a day of clashes over access to one of South America’s richest tin mines left at least nine people dead and 40 injured, a senior official said.

Hundreds of miners belonging to independent cooperatives, which backed President Evo Morales in last December’s elections, stormed the state-owned Huanuni mine early Thursday to demand more access to its tin deposits. State-employed miners counterattacked to regain control, and the groups exchanged deadly volleys of gunfire and dynamite.

Public Defender Waldo Albarricin announced late Thursday that the two groups had agreed to cease hostilities so that both sides could bury their dead.

“The peace agreement comes at the will of workers on both sides,” said Albarricin, adding that meetings between the camps will continue Friday morning to negotiate a more permanent agreement.

Bolivian state TV had originally announced 12 people had been killed, and even listed their names, but Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera later said the official death toll was nine.

Among the dead were men and one woman from both sides, as well as a bus driver, according to media reports. “What should have been a blessing for the country, to possess such natural riches, today has become a curse,” Garcia said in a national address.

A team of Bolivia’s top ministers was dispatched to the mining town of Huanuni, 180 miles (290 kilometers) south of the capital of La Paz, to mediate an end to the conflict.

Angry miners criticized the government for declining to mobilize the military after the clashes began. Some accused Morales of withholding troops to avoid a confrontation with the mining cooperatives that played a key role in the populist movement that helped him win election.

“If they will not send the army, then they should send us boxes for our dead,” said Pedro Montes, secretary-general of the Central Obrero Boliviano, a national union representing the state-employed miners.

Morales, an Aymara Indian, was elected in December with a mandate to help Bolivia’s poor indigenous majority see a larger share of the revenues from the landlocked nation’s extensive mineral and natural gas deposits.

The battle for Huanuni has roots going back at least 20 years. In 1985, state mining company Comibol shuttered mines throughout Bolivia after a collapse in the world metal market, laying off some 30,000 workers.

While many of Huanuni’s unemployed miners sought work in other fields and other parts of the country, some remained, and as prices recovered they formed independent mining cooperatives to continue mining tin on their own.

Bolivia eventually granted the Huanuni mine concession to then-British-based Allied Deals. When the company, now based in the United States, declared its Bolivian operations bankrupt in 2005, the mine returned to Comibol, despite demands from the miners’ cooperatives for some control over the valuable deposits.

The cooperatives strongly backed Morales’ campaign last year, and the president has since granted them some concessions at Huanuni.

See our last report on Bolivia.