Mining has been central to Bolivian history since the Spanish colonised the region in the sixteenth century and silver was first discovered in the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) of Potosí. The Spaniards used native Bolivians as forced labour to extract vast quantities of silver, which were shipped across the Atlantic to enrich the Spanish crown and finance its foreign wars. Hundreds of thousands perished in the mines as they were worked to death or poisoned by mercury used in the extraction process.
After silver came tin, which surged in price after the industrial revolution in Europe and North America. The Bolivian mining industry was dominated by three large mine owners, known as the “tin barons”. It was in the early twentieth century, that the first miners’ unions began to organise in the then privately owned mines, calling for higher wages and a shorter working day. These unions radicalised their demands in the face of state repression and massacres of their activists and leaders.
The miners’ unions were at the vanguard of Bolivia’s nationalist revolution in 1952 which sought greater social justice by nationalising the mines, giving the vote to the indigenous peoples and redistributing land to poor farmers in the Andean altiplano (high-plains). After the revolution was sidelined by new — middle class — interests, and the government fell into the hands of tyrannical military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s, the miners led the resistance, a key factor in the struggle for democracy. The dictatorships, for their part, tried to break the trade unions, targeting their leaders who were imprisoned, murdered or forcibly disappeared.
The return to democracy in the early 1980s gave way to neo-liberal reforms and privatisation. The state mining company COMIBOL was largely dismantled and tens of thousands of miners were thrown out of work. This led to mass migration from the mines to the countryside and cities. Finding work as small-scale farmers or street-sellers, the miners brought their traditions of trade union organisation with them. Unions of peasants and small farmers became a force on the national stage, along with guilds of street-sellers and other informal trades and urban neighbourhood groups. Evo Morales rose through the ranks of these social movements as they came together to form the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party.
The MAS was swept to office in 2005, beginning a new period of government under President Morales, backed by the unions and social movements. The MAS government has sought to increase national control over natural resources in the gas and mining sectors and redistribute the benefits by introducing social benefits paid to deprived sectors of the population. These include a universal pension paid to everyone over 60 as well as payments to school children and pregnant mothers.
Much still needs to be done to improve conditions in the mines, though those that have been taken back into national ownership have seen significant progress. Companies now pay more tax to the state and royalties to local governments. The government is now seeking to bring about first steps towards industrialisation, aiming to get more added-value for minerals, previously exported as raw materials.
© Jean-Claude Wicky