MAC/20: Mines and Communities

BOLIVIA

Published by MAC on 2006-10-07

BOLIVIA

Morales Fires 2 Bolivia Mining Officials

By DAN KEANE, Associated Press Writer

7th October 2006

LA PAZ, Bolivia | President Evo Morales fired two top mining officials late Friday after a clash between rival bands of miners over access to the country's richest tin deposit left at least 16 dead and more than 60 injured.

Reports of a halt to the fighting came after the government sent 700 police to control the mountainside where the mine is located.

Officials from the two mining groups also met with government ministers in La Paz. Presidential spokesman Alex Contreras said the meeting yielded a peace agreement, with both sides agreeing to allow humanitarian aid to enter the town.

It wasn't immediately known if the agreement would turn into a permanent cease-fire. A truce on Thursday night lasted long enough for both sides to bury their dead.

Morales said the changes were part of the his administration's learning process.

"In eight months we cannot solve all of our social problems," he said. "I recognize, self-critically, that we are all new at this - ministers, vice ministers, president, vice president, all learning to serve the people better."

Morales, who took office in January as Bolivia's first indigenous president, responded to the violence by dismissing both the minister of mines, Walter Villarroel, and president of Bolivia's state-owned mining company Comibol, Antonio Rebollo.

In their place, he swore in Guillermo Dalence Salinas as the new minister, and Hugo Miranda as the new head of the mining company.

The violence began Thursday morning, when hundreds of miners belonging to independent cooperatives stormed the state-owned Huanuni mine, demanding more access to its tin deposits. State-employed miners counterattacked to regain control of the mine and the groups exchanged gunshots and dynamite.

The clash followed a breakdown in negotiations in the nearby city of Oruro in which the miners' cooperatives rejected a government proposal dividing Huanuni's veins of tin between the two groups.

The cooperatives strongly backed Morales' election last year, and the administration has already granted them access to a portion of the Huanuni deposit on on the barren slopes of Posokoni Mountain.

Miners from both sides threw dynamite and homemade explosives at each other from ridge to ridge, sometimes separated by no more than 50 feet.

Miners, some only in their teens, carried sticks of dynamite in backpacks and tucked in their belts.

In town, residents held a prayer vigil in the local church for the violence to end. Blood stains and holes from explosives littered a soccer field in the Dolores neighborhood following fighting there Thursday.

On Friday morning, members of the miners' cooperative rolled three tires packed with explosives down the side of the mountain toward town, causing an enormous explosion.

Bolivian mines once produced over 30 percent of the world's tin supply, but production came to almost a complete halt following a collapse of the world metal market in 1985, and national mining company Comibol slashed its workforce by some 25,000 workers.

While many of Huanuni's unemployed miners sought work in other fields and other parts of the country, some remained, and as prices recovered, they formed independent mining cooperatives to mine tin on their own.

Bolivia eventually granted the Huanuni mine concession to British-based Allied Deals. When the company, now known as RBG Resources, abandoned its Bolivian operations in 2005, the mine returned to Comibol, despite demands from the miners' cooperatives for some control over the valuable deposits.

Still, production remains well below pre-1985 levels. In 2005, Bolivia produced only 18,780 tons, or about 5 percent of global output.

Rising tin prices have stoked demands by the independent miners, who see the Huanuni vein as a rare source of steady employment in the poor South American country.

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