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Miners Just Took 43 Police Officers Hostage in Bolivia

But it’s just one battle in a larger war over natural resources.

Ben Dangl

(Photo by Juan Adolfo Apaza)

On Monday night, outside of Cochabamba, Bolivia, a conflict between police and miners protesting a new mining law left two miners dead and 50 people injured. The miners died of bullet wounds to the head. Forty-three policemen were also taken prisoner by the miners. The miners wielded dynamite against the armed police forces, though it’s still unclear who provoked the fight. 

Before taking hostages, the miners had organised roadblocks across the country against a new mining law that would give the administration of President Evo Morales oversight of private tin, silver and zinc miners’ transactions with private or foreign companies. (The Bolivian government also owns enormous public mines, which would not be effected by this aspect of the law.) The Morales administration wants to maintain oversight of sales and mining development in the private sector in order to ensure that the resources benefit the country, rather than simply enrich private and foreign investors. The miners protesting on Monday all work in the private sector and, curiously, aren’t part of a leftist attempt for collective control of their mines – they simply want the right to be able to sell the minerals they extract to any person or company they please.

Congressman José Antonio Yucra of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS, the party led by President Morales) explained to the press that “there is great interest in million-dollar contracts that the cooperativist [private miners] would have with foreign [companies]” if the government did not regulate the industry. But the fight over the mining law is part of a much wider conflict across the Andes and Latin America. Who profits from the extraction of natural resources? Who pays when mining or oil exploration harms the environment and local communities? To what extent are local communities consulted about resource extraction that destroys their land, water and livelihoods? Despite leftist rhetoric about protecting the environment and working on behalf of the region’s downtrodden, the presidents of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, among others, are charging ahead with destructive mining, gas and oil industrialisation at a rapid pace.

Mining of copper, lead and zinc in Peru, for example, has been booming, and, alongside this boom, indigenous and agrarian communities have fought against the destruction of their land, water and homes. In Ecuador, protesters against extractive industries have been criminalised as the government moves forward with oil and mining projects. A recent lawsuit by Ecuadorean villagers against Chevron made it clear who pays and who profits when a community is devastated to extract natural wealth: Despite allegedly spilling 18 million gallons of toxic wastewater in rural Ecuador, an international court said Chevron did not have to pay to clean up the damage. “We will fight [the lawsuit] until Hell freezes over,” said a Chevron representative. “And then we’ll fight it out on the ice.”

In Bolivia, indigenous movements are organising against the environmental devastation that accompanies mining and other extractive industries. 

"The open veins of Latin America are still bleeding," Mama Nilda Rojas, a leader of the dissident indigenous organisation CONAMAQ, told me in a recent interview in La Paz, Bolivia. Rojas believes that President Morales and the MAS party are paving the way for further extractive industries, led either by the government or by foreign corporations operating with the government’s blessing – and they’ve already done so by ignoring the rights of local communities.

Nilda’s father, CONAMAQ leader Cancio Rojas, was jailed in 2012 (and later released) for protesting against the Canadian South American Silver Corporation’s operations in his community in Potosi.

While the new and controversial mining law limits the rights of miners to sell their resources, it also gives the mining industry rights to use public water for its water-intensive and toxic operation, while disregarding the rights of rural and farming communities to that same water. Furthermore, the law criminalises protest against mining operations, leaving those communities that would bear the brunt of the industry’s pollution and displacement without any legal recourse to defend their homes. 

Another problem with the law, and the mining industry in general, says Bolivian independent journalist Marielle Cauthin, is that it is based on the premise that the only way Bolivia can develop is through the extraction and sale of raw materials, rather than by overcoming its dependence on such an economy. “The Bolivian state believes that [mining and related industries] is our destiny, but this will only bring us closer towards the death of our environment and indigenous communities.” 

In the wake of the violence in Bolivia, the government announced on Tuesday that it will suspend the approval of the mining law (it was on its way to the Senate) in an effort to de-escalate the conflict and open a dialogue with miners. At the time of this writing, private miners are still blocking roads across Bolivia to keep pressure on the government.

In a country where politics takes place in both the streets and the Senate, blockades, protests and even miners taking the police hostage are a part of politics as usual. Meanwhile, the families of the two miners who died in the confrontation on Monday – Juan Manuel Cachaca and Jhonny Huisa Condori – are asking for justice and an investigation into the events surrounding the miners’ deaths. The police, for their part, have been released.

Ben Dangl's latest book is Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America. Follow him on Twitter.