a movie by

Jean-Claude Wicky

Colquiri, Caracoles, Huanuni are places most Bolivians don't know; Chorolque, Animas, Siete Suyos, mining camps sitting up on the inhospitable slopes of arid mountains, where the air is thin and the wind blows without respite.

The vague idea the world has of Bolivia is formed by the coups d'état that some years ago shook the country, and more recently, cocaine. But since Bolivia was colonised, the country has been known for its mines. The fabulous veins of silver from the Cerro Rico in Potosí, discovered in 1545 by the Indian Diego Huallpa, created the legend of the Bolivian mines.

Labour was needed to exploit this wealth. Under the Incas, the mita was a system of obligatory community work, in fact an institution useful to the whole community. But the Spaniards made it into a regime of forced labour. From the four corners of the land, large contingents of Indians were obliged to leave their agricultural communities to be taken by force to Potosí to work in the mines.

The city's development was astonishing. Churches, palaces, convents and theatres were built. In gratitude for the riches it produced, Emperor Carlos V gave it the title of "imperial city". In 1573 it had 120,000 inhabitants. As populated as London was then, it was the largest town in the Americas and one of the most important in the world, Silver extracted day and night from 5000 pit heads was founded into ingots and loaded onto galleons which took it to the Spanish court. Gold and silver from the new territories stimulated economic development in Europe and to a large extent made its growth possible.

According to legend, the silver extracted from the Cerro Rico would have been enough to build a bridge which linked the "imperial city" to Spain. For three centuries the mountain gave up the precious metal which it held in its entrails. But in return, it fed off blood. Hundreds of thousands of Indians met their deaths there.

At the end of the 19th century silver exports began to fall. The increase in world production provoked a fall in prices. The focus was turning to tin. The world needed it.

Large scale tin production began at the beginning of the 20th century. Other minerals were also mined, such as lead, zinc, wolfram, bismuth, antimony, copper, silver, gold, etc. All these minerals, especially tin, went to make the fortune of a few people and at the same time bring misfortune to the country.

Until 1952, the mining industry was dominated by three large mineowners, called the "tin barons". Patiño was the most powerful of the three: he produced half of Bolivia's tin. His income was far greater than the state's and when he died in 1947 he was one of the richest men in the world. As export taxes were very low, the "tin barons" built fabulous fortunes. But this was at the cost of much sweat and blood spent in the depths of the earth, and the exploitation of one of the world's least known proletariats.

As earnings were sent abroad, these riches brought no benefit at all to Bolivia. No one was interested in the country, only in its riches. Bolivia was condemned to be a fountain of wealth, but never to own it. As miners today say "Our land's wealth has always been the source of our poverty".

In 1952, the State nationalised the mines belonging to the three main groups who controlled 80% of tin production and a considerable part of other minerals. The Government created the Bolivian Mineral Corporation (Comibol) to administer these deposits. However, the 1985 world metals crisis forced the Comibol to restructure. Mine by mine, they have privatised the most profitable, and leased the rest to mining cooperatives.
The once powerful miner's union, was destroyed. 27.000 people were fired.
Some went to grow coca; others swelled the ranks of the more than 500 mining cooperatives in which the majority of miners, about 70,000 men, work.
These cooperatives have long been a practical solution to unemployment.

The cooperatives, managing concessions leased from the state, allocate the work areas and sell the ore.
The miners'salaries are based on output, the amount of ore extracted.
I knew some men who barely earned enough to eat.
All owners, all slaves? Not exactly. There is a growing number of small bosses who no longer work directly in the mines. They hire workers paid by the day or task, lacking any status.
Labor laws are not respected, with only 25% of the cooperative miners covered by social and health insurance.
The fantasy of discovering a miraculous vein of ore is more of a motivation to today's miners than the cooperative ideal.

The foreign-owned and Bolivian private mines are mechanised. Miners earn a fixed salary, receive social insurance and a pension; but these more humane conditions concern less than 10% of the work force

The mining potential is still enormous. Only 10% of the resources have been exploited up until now.
But no government has ever adopted a well planned coherent mining policy.
Bolivia exports raw ore, ready for foundries, without added value. The mines have been worked for decades, some for more than five hundred years. They are being depleted yet little is done to find new ones. Worse still, foreign investors avoid the country due to its vague investment laws.