MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Bolivia mining violence quelled, minister replaced

Published by MAC on 2006-10-07

Bolivia mining violence quelled, minister replaced

By Eduardo Garcia

7th October 2006

HUANUNI, Bolivia (Reuters) - A deadly dynamite battle between rival groups of Bolivian miners ended in a truce on Friday evening and President Evo Morales fired his mining minister, who was criticized for not anticipating the violence.

The official death toll rose to 16, after state-employed miners and members of independent mining cooperatives fought with dynamite, sticks and stones on Thursday and part of Friday at the Huanuni mine, one of the world's largest tin mines.

More than 60 people were wounded in the fighting in the impoverished town of Huanuni in the desolate, dusty Andes southeast of La Paz, before hundreds of riot police carrying batons and shields arrived to quell the fighting.

The violence posed a new challenge to the leftist Morales, leaving him caught between two groups whose political support helped lift him to power last year.

The violence started after miners from cooperatives stormed the mine on Thursday demanding larger concessions to exploit tin ore from the mine, in which both state-employed miners and independent cooperatives work.

Opposition lawmakers called for the removal of Minister Walter Villaroel, and Morales reacted, replacing him with Guillermo Dalence, who was sworn in on Friday night in a televised ceremony.

Police, government and church officials negotiated with both sides. "We're carrying out a job of persuasion," said National Police Commissioner Isaac Pimentel.

Earlier on Friday, hundreds of independent miners in hard hats, many crouched in the rocky hillsides overlooking Huanuni, tossed lit dynamite sticks at rival workers.

Some packed dynamite into tires, which they rolled down to explode near state-employed miners guarding mine entrances.

The government announced the hundreds of police officers it sent to the area would not carry lethal weapons.

Analysts and traders said tin prices could jump sharply as supplies are squeezed by the violence in Bolivia and in Indonesia, where riots broke out after police closed down four illegal smelters this week.

'DON'T EVEN HAVE A WHEELBARROW'

State-employed workers complain that while they earn a monthly wage, workers from the independent cooperatives are paid according to the amount of ore they extract, frequently earning more than mine staff.

"They are sucking the mine dry," said Eliaterio Ancasi, 54, a worker at the state-controlled mining company, COMIBOL. "Within a month many of them have a car, while most of the state workers don't even have a wheelbarrow."

Some 1,200 state-employed miners and 4,000 independent miners work at Huanuni, which produces 10,000 tonnes of tin a year, slightly more than half Bolivia's total production.

Once a pillar of the economy in South America's poorest country, the mining industry shriveled during the 1980s as pits were closed and workers were let go amid an economic crisis and sagging international prices for minerals.

As prices rebounded and climbed in the 1990s, the laid-off miners started working the idle mines themselves and eventually formed powerful independent cooperatives now fighting for more control over Bolivia's rich minerals.

Morales has said he wants to revive the industry but has not announced a formal plan to do so.

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