As a mining country, the history of Bolivia has been quite long. During the Colonial period, the Spanish Empire had the good fortune of having huge amounts of silver because of the Cerro Ricco de Potosi mine where it was produced for more than 400 years (Fields). Although silver continued to be mined in Bolivia throughout the years, however, silver was also found along with it as well. At the hindmost part of the silver mining process during the Colonial period in Bolivia, vast amounts of tin were discarded as waste. Ever since then, thousands of Bolivians were forced by the Spaniards work in the silver mines and extract huge amounts silver, which were shipped to finance the Spanish foreign wars and enrich its crown, across the Atlantic. Hundreds of thousands of miners lost their lives either because of being overworked or because of poisoning by the mercury used to extract the silver.
In 1865, several factors resulted in a decline in the price of silver; discovery of rich deposits in California; a decline in demand in Eastern Countries and an increase in the use of paper as currency. After the collapse of the International Market, transferring communications and technology to other metals became impossible. However, as the demand for tin increased throughout the world, for canning and other industrial uses, Bolivia promptly responded to international demand by capitalizing on its resources. Since railroad transportation and cheap labor was easily available in Bolivia, unexpectedly shipping tin became profitable, and the Bolivian economy made the transition from silver to tin comparatively easily (Klein 163).
Some of the Most Fortunate Bolivian Tin Miners
Simon Patino was the first man to buy a share in a Bolivian tin mine. The mine was on the border of the city of Potosi, in the district of Unicia, in Orerro. Although Patino was a ‘white collar’ mine employee, in 1897 he ended buying complete control of the mine. In 1990, he struck one of Bolivia’s richest veins. Ultimately, Patino became one of the fourth most affluent men in the world because he acquired obtained immense holdings in mining and non-mining-related investments. When it came to policymaking, the government of Bolivia actually took dictation from the managers of the Patino Mines. Patino had become the most powerful capitalist in Bolivia and held virtual veto power over the state (Queiser 50). He also took political favors and tax concessions from the Bolivian government by lending large private loans.
Carlos Aramayo and Mauricio Hochschild were two other major tin miners in Bolivi. They end up evenly dividing the other half of the Bolivian tin mining industry. Prior to the transition from silver to tin, Aramayo’s family had been involved in silver mining. In fact, he was among the small number of silver magnates who survived the Bolivian mining industry transition from silver to tin. Aramayos held a 25% share of the tin production in Bolivia, and regardless of heavy European investments, he operated fundamentally in the Bolivian capital, Sucre. The other 25% was controlled by Hochschild, who had European Jewish ancestry and had spent most his life in Bolivia. By the 1930s, the tin production in Bolivia was being dominated by these three Mining Barons. However, life was not as fortunate for the other miners working in the tin mines in Bolivia.
Life of the Bolivian Tin Miners
Lifestyle & Food
There used to be separate systems of work in the Bolivian tin mines: one for the miners and the other for the technicians. The mines would continue operating 24 hours a day and the miners would be divided into three different work shifts. Miners would often get exhausted working in the mines (Barrios De Chungara 26). Normally, work in the Bolivian tin mines extended throughout the daylight hours six days a week, probably with time for a nap after lunch. Since the Bolivian tin miners had to rise early and leave before sunrise, their breakfast consisted of hearty soups, pasta, potatoes, and rice. Too frequently, miners would have to make their way back home from the mines on winter nights under the showering rain in the darkness. There were instances where the miners had to walk miles at late hours of the night before they made it back home.
When miners returned from their shift for dinner they expected a hot, comfortable meal ready for them. The diet of the miners was mostly rich in potatoes and other carbohydrate-dense foods, such as legumes and maize. The miners would also drink chichi (maize beer) along with their meals, which is a traditional beverage in the Bolivian highlands. Often, the miners grew their own food that they carried with them so they did not have to pay the high prices in the isolated mining cities and camps. In a majority of cases, there were no stores in the mining camps where the miners could buy food. As a result, inflationary pressures on salaries were also reduced by this. Injuries or illness often became dangerous for the miners because there were no health services nearby.
There was a lack of opportunities for education in the Bolivian village. Very few miners had some secondary education. Although the families of the miners had some opportunity for education and medical care, the wives and the children of the miners spent most of their time laboring as palliris “high-grades” for a pittance in wages in the ore dumps. At the beginning of the twentieth century, more miners started gaining secondary education and some had even been to the university. Eventually, labor unrest and radicalization started becoming common among the Bolivian miners as a result of cultural education. Companies also started providing the miners with opportunities to obtain education and training so that they could rise socially and vocationally.
Formally, Bolivians are devoted Catholics, and historically, they have been enormously influenced by the Catholic Church. However, they tend to follow a system of “popular religion” comprising of formal Catholic Elements, Protestant rituals, partially accepting and understanding doctrine, along with the addition of beliefs and rituals of pre-Hispanic Andea. The tin miners in Bolivia, in particular, were devoted to the El Tío “the uncle” deity. In the ritual life of the mining community in Bolivia El Tío has been an iconic central figure. According to the beliefs of the Bolivian tin miners, El Tío protects them against accidents, ill fortune and ensures rewarding work. Miners also believed that they would suffer accidents or even death if they refused to worship El Tío. So, in return for his benevolence and to ensure their good fortune in the mines and good health, the miners in Bolivia would make sacrificial offerings to icons of El Tío they had placed in the mineshafts.
Boys as young as 12 started working underground in the tin mines in Bolivia, while boys younger than the age of 12 would work above the ground breaking rock. The conditions in the deep Bolivian tin mines were hot, extremely dangerous and unjust for the miners who went underground. The Bolivian tin mines are at an altitude of eleven thousand to fifteen thousand feet and the miners had to work a couple of thousand feet lower. Miners had to access these deep tin mines by a ladder because there were no cages in those days to carry them up and down the small, vertical mine shafts. At times, these ladders would stretch down for hundred feet and it was not uncommon for miners to trip and fall down. A majority of the tin mines in Bolivia were cramped and hot. More often, the temperatures underground soared up to 96°F and the air could barely sustain a candle, but the miners had to continue working.
One of the worst Bolivian tin mines are at Pulacayo, where the galleries are so deep that the miners had to strip naked while working and in order to bear the heat, they would constantly splash water on their bodies (Anstie 101). Injuries and death were a part of the everyday life of the miners in the Bolivian tin mines. Explosions and rockfalls were among the risks for the miners working in the underground Bolivian tin mines. Safety improvements were minimal and most of the machinery would be defective, so the miners can to continue working in the dangerous conditions below the ground. Diseases were prevalent in the tin mines in Bolivia because of damp, dusty and hot conditions the miners had to work in. Although in comparison to the developed world, the life expectancy of the people in Bolivia is 46 years. However, the life expectancy for the Bolivian tin miners was 33 years (Barrios De Chungara 27), which has slightly improved over the years.
The Bolivian National Revolution
A large percentage of the lower class miners working in the tin mines in Bolivia were Indians, and various measures were devised to improve their lives. In 1936, an attempt was made to regulate the financial activities of the Bolivian tin mines by German Busch the first president of Bolivia. In 1936, a decree was to be signed by him to introduce state control of tin exports; unfortunately he committed suicide in peculiar circumstances. Villaroel, the next president of Bolivia made an attempt to continue the same policies over the ten years. Surprisingly, Villaroel also met a horrible end during the Bolivian Popular Revolt of 1946, where he was lynched and hanged in La Paz from a lamp post.
The peasants “Campesenos”, and the Bolivian tin miners also supported the National Revolution Movement, and finally, the three tin gains were brought down in 1952. In the same year their mines were nationalized and were relinquished over to COMIBOL (Corporacion Minera de Bolivia), a vast state company. Today, the COMIBOL is among the world’s largest mining operations. Confusion over whether the tin profits should have been re-channeled to benefit the country or interests abroad resulted in a lot of controversy. This controversy also lead to massacres in the Bolivian mines, in the form of revolutions and riots in which many public figures were lynched. The miner’s union in Bolivia brought the MNR into power and the union became most powerful political force in the country, on the basis of armed strength.
The tin miners of Bolivia had played a prime role in bringing about the revolution, however, new “middle class” interests caused the revolution to get sidelined, and in the 1960s and 1970s, oppressive military dictatorships took over the government. In the struggle for democracy, the Bolivian tin miners once again led the revolution. For their part, the dictatorships targeted the imprisoned leaders of the trade unions, who ended up disappearing or murdered, in order to break the trade unions. In the early 1980s, Bolivia returned to democracy once again, making way for privatization and neo-liberal reforms, which affected the tin mines as well.
This also resulted in the dismantling of most the state mining company COMIBOL because of which tens of thousands of tin miners in Bolivia lost their jobs. As a result, a large number of tin miners migrated from the mines to the cities and countryside in Bolivia. The miners started working as street sellers or small-scale farmers, but their traditions of trade union organization remained with them. By this time, the Bolivian peasants were already a politically conscious group, and unions of small farmers and peasants became a national-level force. During these social movements, Evo Morales rose to the ranks and ultimately the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party was formed as they came together.
Just back in September, violent clashes between two opposing factions of miners in the second largest Bolivian tin mine in La Paz led to the death of one miner and left 10 others injured ("reuters.com"). Reuters had reported that violent clashes began at the Colquiri tin mine when the miners at threw sticks of dynamite and rocks at each other in the Bolivian capital. Witnesses stated that thousands of independent miners barged into the mine in the early afternoon and started throwing dynamite at unionized miners. There have been conflicts between independent and unionized Bolivian tin miners ever since June, when the mine was seized from Glencore, Swiss commodities giant, by president Evo Morales. The dispute between the two groups of miners is whether the independent or unionized miners should have the right to exploit the richest tin deposits in the mine.
According to claims made by the Morales government, the dispute between the miners and the miner owners, and also the dispute between the two groups of miners would be quashed by nationalization of the mine. The government has not succeeded at living up to its promise ever since then; the Bolivian tin mining sector is losing $200,000 every day because of the ongoing violence. Now, the unionized workers have demanded that independent miners should be expelled from Colquiri, who are at the moment working on a section of the mining site as per an agreement that the government had brokered in June.
Reversing the process of the impoverished state of that the Bolivian mining communities are in has been difficult, especially because of vicious bureaucratic cycle that the government has been taking. As a result of the fact no one has been paying attention to these Bolivian mining communities as they continue to operate with their minimal managerial capabilities, costly political conflicts have occurred and environment continues to be damaged. So, it seems that no adequate and realistic remedial action has been taken.
In order to improve the conditions of the Bolivian mining community and the conditions in the mines, there is a lot that still needs to be done. On the other hand, significant progress has also been made in the Bolivian tin mines that were taken back into national ownership. More tax is now being paid by companies to the state and royalties are being paid to the local governments. The Bolivian government is now considering taking steps that will lead to industrialization, so that more added-value for minerals that have been previous exported as raw materials can be obtained. Despite the hardships, the Bolivian tin miners and tin mining industry will be remembered throughout history as leaders in the world of tin mining.
"UPDATE 1-Bolivian tin miners clash in La Paz, killing one person." reuters.com. Thomson Reuters, 18 2012. Web. 16 Nov 2012.
Anstee, Margaret J. Bolivia: Gate of the Sun. New York: Eriksson, 1970. 100-105
Barrios De Chungara, Domitala. Let Me Speak. New York: Monthly p., 1978. 26-27
Fields, Spencer W. Capturing the Riches of Bolivia. Web.
Klein, Herbert S. Bolivia: The Evolution of Multi-Ethnic Society. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford U p., 1992. 152-179
Nash, June. We eat the mines and the mines eat us: Dependency and exploitation in bolivian tin mines. Revised edition. Columbia University Press, 1993. Print.
Queiser Morales, Waltraid. Bolivia: Land of Struggle. Bolder: Westview p., 1992. 51-52