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Bolivian mine pits miners against each other
Government miners clash with independent miners in rivalry over who gets to exploit resources after nationalisation.
Last Modified: 25 Sep 2012 13:20
Violent clashes between rival miners killed one and wounded 10 in La Paz last week [Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera]

Colquiri: A dry wind whips off the mountain peaks as several hundred miners in hard hats weave up a dirt track in a funeral procession for their colleague Hector Choque.

Choque, 31, worked in the mines his entire adult life to earn enough money to provide for his family.

“What do we want?” one miner yells, as others carry the casket up a gravel road.

“Revenge!” the throng of miners chant back in unison.

“When do we want it?”

“Now!” they yell.
 Bolivia's new mining policy ignites turf war

Choque was killed - and 10 others injured - during violent clashes between rival mining factions in what has become a growing standoff over Bolivia’s second-largest tin mine in Colquiri, forced the abrupt resignation of the head of the state-run mining company, and has prodded Bolivia to re-think how to divide up resources after nationalisation.

Bolivian-versus-Bolivian

The current conflict pits, on one side, independent miners who have formed legal co-operatives that number in the tens of thousands, against unionised, salaried miners, like Choque, who worked for COMIBOL, the state-run mining company.

It’s a Bolivian-versus-Bolivian, miner-versus-miner battle that began after President Evo Morales nationalised Colquiri tin mine in June, seizing it from Glencore, the Swiss multi-national commodity trader that had been exploring the mine since 2005.

But rivalry and conflict began when both groups claimed control of one particularly valuable part of the mine which has been estimated to hold as much as $5bn in untapped mineral reserves.After the nationalisation, the government handed over the mine to both the co-operative and government miners in what was designed to be an arrangement where both would divide the exploration and production rights.

“What we want is one hundred per cent of the exploration of the mine for us,” said Eliseo Estallani, a leader from the government miners' side after the funeral of Choque. “We have been in conflict over this mine for a while now with the other side, and we don’t want to continue like that anymore.”

The private, co-operative miners argue they don’t have to leave because the government has a contractual agreement granting them partial rights to the mine after it was nationalised. Those rights include the Rosario section, the most valuable part of the mine.

The tensions reached a boiling point last week as both groups of miners, armed with dynamite, flooded the capital of La Paz and clashed in street protests that killed Choque.

Neither side of the conflicting party seems to be in the mood to negotiate, fearing giving in too much could set a dangerous precedent for other mines that are divided between independent and state miners. Mining is Bolivia’s second largest industry, accounting for about $3bn annual in exports.

In Bolivia, there are about 8,000 state miners, compared to roughly 100,000 independent miners all of whom are watching the situation at Colquiri closely. Some have already taken part in or are threatening a nationwide strikes or roadblocks in support of their colleagues.

Morales, who has been slow to react to the gathering conflict, is in a difficult position politically, as both groups of miners are some of his strongest political supporters.

Marcelo Silva, a political analyst in La Paz, said, for Morales the current conflict is similar to a fight between two of his children that could have a national spillover effect.

“If the government takes sides, this could be seen as justification to review the exploration contracts in other mines in Bolivia where private co-operative miners work,” Silva said. “That is why the miners aren’t giving in one inch on the conflict at Colquiri.”

Post-nationalisation crisis

 Bolivian miners dying from lung disease

The current conflict is in many ways symbolic of a larger, post-nationalisation period the country is facing.

In recent years, Morales, a leftist who was elected in 2006 and overwhelmingly again in 2009, has successfully fulfilled promises of sweeping nationalisation to turn over natural resources to the indigenous majority.

After nationalisation, Bolivia is now finding that it can sometimes be complicated balancing local interests looking to divide up the resources.

Mario Virreira, Bolivia’s minister of mines, acknowledged the Colquiri conflict in many ways is an example of how Bolivia as a country is entering a new period of a larger struggle figuring how to divide up the natural resources after nationalisation.

Silva said the Colquiri mine is forcing the government to re-think itself in a new era.“What is happening now is an example of the contradictions and difficulties that we face after nationalisation, trying to administer two different Bolivian operators in one mine,” Virreira told Al Jazeera during a recent interview at his office in La Paz. “This is our main deficiency we as a government are facing right now: How to make two sides understand one another. And we’re seeing it often times cannot happen.”

“Years ago in Bolivia the social movements were struggling to gain power and control to nationalise, but that battle has been won,” Silva said. “Now it’s an issue of what to do next, how to spread the wealth afterwards?”

Morales has mostly steered clear of the conflict and not used his considerable personal and professional influence with both groups to force a solution. However, he has signalled he thinks the private miners have rights to the mine just as much as government miners.

“The co-operative miners are also Bolivian and also have a constitutional right to explore the mine,” Morales has said.

On Friday, the head of the state-run mining company abruptly resigned, seen here as perhaps a trigger to get both sides to dialogue.

  No end in sight to Bolivia mine unrest

But the situation remains tense, with more calls for nationwide roadblocks looming.

The government miners seized control of the village of Colquiri, ransacked the offices of the co-operative miners, and have set up road blocks into the town.

Work at the mine is at a standstill and already $5 million in production has been lost.

At Choque’s funeral, his mother cried desperately over his coffin. Several people were so overcome with pain, they passed out.

Even some hardened miners, who rarely show emotion, cried.

People passed around a box and miners put coins or small bills inside. It was a donation to Choque’s wife. 

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter: @elizondogabriel

- With reporting from Monica Garcia Zea and Maria Elena Romero.

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