Bolivia - Miner Disputes
The independent miner in Bolivia is a symbol of national pride, and the idea that this prototypical Bolivian no longer supports the populist president could cause difficulties for Morales. More practically, Federation of Mining Cooperatives of Bolivia [FENCOMIN - Federacion Nacional de Cooperativas Mineras de Bolivia] members are estimated to number between 45,000 and 60,000, and if FENCOMIN family-members are included, this is a significant block of votes. Additionally, FENCOMIN members have in the past figured prominently in street protests backing President Morales's Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party. The loss of a large number of such dynamite-tossing supporters could weaken the MAS's street presence.
Striking miners from the Federation of Mining Cooperative were responsible for the kidnapping and murder of country’s Vice Minister of the Interior Rodolfo Llanes. The striking miners seized Illanes 25 August 2016 morning in a move authorities slammed as a “kidnapping” amid an escalating conflict between mine workers and President Evo Morales’ administration.
President Morales denounced the kidnapping and assassination of the Illanes, calling it an act of “conspiracy” against his administration. More than 100 arrests had been made in relation to the murder. "This mobilization of the Fencomin was a political conspiracy and there were no genuine social demands for the sector," President Morales told the media.
The Fencomin miners, formerly allied with Morales, launched the indefinite strike after a series of deadlocked negotiations. They demand better working conditions and pay and reform of the country’s mining act, including the elimination of certain environmental obligations, among other points.
Fencomin launched highway blockades on 23 August 2016 to pressure the government to answer a list of 24 demands, increased from an initial list of 10. Clashes broke out Wednesday between police and protesters on the road between Cochabamba and Oruro, reportedly killing two people. Protesters blame security forces for the deaths, but police claim they did not use excessive force. Dynamite was reportedly set off in the confrontations.
The mining cooperative began protesting 10 August 2016 in opposition to the modification of the Cooperative Law, which allows workers in cooperatives around the country to form unions if they wish to do so. The protesters oppose the amendment of the law, want subsidies on electricity, demand the elimination of certain environmental obligations and want the cooperative to be able to sign contracts with international companies.
When Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia in 2005, he promised to “govern by obeying the people.” The approval in May 2014 by the Plurinational Assembly of laws dealing with mining was an example of the challenges and benefits of this radical approach to governing. During the Morales administration, there have been a number of nationalizations of mines and smelter plants. By 2016 the government was running four mines and two smelter plants.
The conflicts over the law started because the final draft of the law prohibited contracts between cooperatives and private companies (either Bolivian or international). According to the miners, this would have been problematic since cooperative miners do not have capital, technology, or access to the export market. After three years of negotiation between the government and mining companies punctuated by several weeks of violent confrontations in April 2014, President Morales signed the new Mining Law on May 28, 2014.
The new law sought to bring legislation in line with the new constitution, according to which minerals are property of the Bolivian people and to be administered by the state, “in the interest of the collective”. The new law also built on the actions taken to date by the government in the mining sector. These included the nationalization of mineral deposits and tin smelters, the renegotiation of contracts to ensure increased state control and revenues, and steps towards metal processing and industrialization.
The government’s policies helped resuscitate COMIBOL, the state mining company, as a key planner in the sector, as the owner of important subsoil resources, as a partner with a number of private sector concerns, as promoter of industrialization, and as a producer in its own right. Once the government had presented its draft version of the law, agreed to by all sections of the mining workforce, parliamentarians sought to remove the right of cooperatives to freely sign contracts with the private sector. The law established that there will be no more mining concessions, only contracts will be signed between private companies and COMIBOL (the government mining company).
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