Mining for Change in Bolivia

In the time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal.

-George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (p.33).

In May of 1940, a small copper mining town in rural Bolivia called Corocoro was sinking. The 1930s had been a tumultuous decade for the city, which was devastated by the stock market crash of 1929 and the closure of the British company that had mined in the region. From 1932 to 1935, a disastrous war with Paraguay had taken 5,000 of the region’s sons off to war. From a height of 20,000 inhabitants in 1918, the city was reduced to less than a thousand by the mid-1930s. The city struggled to recover from this economic and physical collapse for much of the decade. By 1940, a new mining company, the American Smelting and Refining Co (ASARCO), was leasing the mines and producing copper again, returning some economic promise to the town. But heavy rains during the late 1930s destabilized soils and washed away irrigation canals and highways. To make matters worse, during that austral fall of 1940, sinkholes began to swallow up buildings in the center of town. What remained of Corocoro’s infrastructure was disappearing into the ground.1

Noting that the richest veins of copper ore were found within the city limits, a lawyer named Miguel Quisbert suggested that municipal authorities cede the town itself to the mining company. In exchange, city officials could compel ASARCO to buy out the property owners in town and expropriate land for a New Corocoro a few miles east. Over the course of the petition, it became clear that while he was concerned about the sinking earth, Quisbert had a larger problem with the American Smelting and Refining Company. Since its entrance into the city six years before, ASARCO had severely threatened the economic life of Corocoro. Company stores supplied by the international corporation were putting merchants out of business by the dozens and the once-vibrant commercial center was becoming a ghost town. Accusing ASARCO of enriching itself without giving back to the community, Quisbert hoped to solve recent natural and economic disasters alike by making the company pay for the city’s recovery. By relocating on the company dime, Quisbert hoped to re-found the town on terms more favorable to accountability and local prosperity.

Drawing of Potosí mines by Pedro Cieza de León, 1553. Public domain image.

Drawing of Potosí mines by Pedro Cieza de León, 1553. Public domain image.

The mines of Bolivia have captivated fortune-seekers for nearly half a millennium. Cervantes, when looking to capture a sense of incalculable wealth, had his Don Quixote tell Sancho Panza of the mines of Potosí. Ever since the Spanish began to mine for silver at the cerro rico, or “rich mountain” in 1545, Bolivia has seen its fame, fortune, and chances of prosperity rise and fall with the extraction of non-renewable resources from the earth—and has suffered mightily for these resources. During the colonial period, thousands of indigenous Andeans were compelled to work in the mines of Potosí to extract silver for the Spanish crown.

Since Bolivia won its independence from Spain in 1825, the country has attempted to use its enviable mineral wealth to overcome colonial legacies of poverty and inequality. First silver, then tin and petroleum, and later a complex of minerals and hydrocarbons—most recently lithium—have seemed to offer a solution to persistent problems of underdevelopment and an unequal global distribution of wealth. All that needed to be done was direct profits from this unceasing bounty towards national, rather than foreign, interests. And yet, attempts to recoup the wealth of mineral and other resources for the benefit of all Bolivians have consistently resulted in problems: aside from the toll mining takes on those who work within it, the nation itself has suffered from its resource bounty. In 1879 Chile went to war with Bolivia over its nitrate deposits, seizing Bolivia’s entire coastline as spoils of victory. In 1932, rumors of new petroleum deposits helped push Bolivia to war with Paraguay, resulting in a similarly devastating loss of people and territory in the eastern lowlands. In 1937 the military socialist government of David Toro nationalized Standard Oil holdings in Bolivia and shortly thereafter was forced out of the government by his second in command, Germán Busch. Each of these disasters resulted in large part from the Bolivian state attempting to control how the profits of national resources were distributed within and outside the country.

By 1940, the Quisbert petition was part of a movement among nationally-minded local elites and middle-class reformers in Bolivia to hold foreign corporations accountable. These reformers had in their sights not only foreign companies such as ASARCO, but the wealthy mines of Bolivian tin magnates such as Simon Patiño and the Aramayo family, who were enriching themselves at the country’s expense. When the Movimiento Revolucionario Nacionalista (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, MNR) came to power in 1952 on the back of a popular uprising by workers and peasants, that party promised to change Bolivia into a modern developed country through universal suffrage, the redistribution of land, and the nationalization of mines. In the decades that followed, the newly created national mining corporation, COMIBOL, was supposed to overcome poverty and inequality by reinvesting mineral profits for the national good.

Copper ore, Corocoro. Photo by author, 2013.

Copper ore, Corocoro. Photo by author, 2013.

Revolutionary regimes throughout the global south have attempted to leverage raw material production into not just national profit but revolutionary social change. In Bolivia, the nationalized mining company provided free schools, hospitals, housing, and subsidized food staples for workers, using the mineral profits to provide a chance at a better life for miners and their wives and children. This ambitious vision did not work. There are many reasons why Bolivia’s attempts to link tin profits to a better life were doomed to failure. Over the course of the twentieth century, this project was hampered by unfavorable conditions attached to US development loans, the high price of Bolivian tin relative to the global market, and declining mineral content in the mines. Corruption, political jockeying, and mismanagement also played a role in the downfall of Bolivia’s national mining experiment. At its most basic level, the nationalist project had not developed a way to make mining healthy or safe for those who had to work within it. Despite the promises of the new revolutionary government, state-run mines proved to be just as dangerous for their workers as they had been under the control of foreign corporations.

Bolivia’s current president, Evo Morales, elected in 2006 as part of a leftist resurgence known as Latin America’s “Pink Tide,” has attempted to harness hydrocarbons and renewed mineral investment for the national good. Morales’ platform of “living well” proposes vast reductions in child poverty, illiteracy, and disease all financed through the development of minerals from the highlands and oil and gas reserves in lowland regions in Bolivia. Morales has attempted to have development both ways: writing protections for Pachamama, or Mother Earth, into the Bolivian constitution while encouraging mineral partnerships with both national and multinational companies. All the while, Morales—the country’s first president of indigenous descent—has also cracked down on indigenous communities who wish to prevent development in their territories. A few years into the Morales presidency, Linda Farthing characterized Bolivian environmental protection policy as one of “abstract laws and concrete violations.” Like his predecessors, Morales has yet to solve the same paradox raised by Quisbert’s petition in 1940: can the very earth from which a nation extracts ore be saved? Can a country mine a mountain without causing its inevitable collapse or ensuring the pollution of neighboring communities?

Laundry day, Oruro. Photo by author, 2013.

Laundry day, Oruro. Photo by author, 2013.

Since the early 2000s, a lot of social scientific ink has been spilled over the so-called “resource curse” whereby countries rich in natural resources tend to be poor on development and democracy indexes. Calling this paradox a curse overlooks a deeper question, however: why are industries that have been so intimately linked to colonialism, human rights abuses, and environmental damage so persistently attractive for radicals and revolutionaries who want to create a redistributive, equitable social order? Well before the modern environmental movement, social reformers from George Orwell to Jaime Mendoza recognized the devastating effects of mining on the human lives involved. Throughout the twentieth century, Bolivian drillers in underground mines commonly expect that they will end their lives with an incurable respiratory condition like silicosis, known as “mal de mina” or the “the miner’s disease.”

Certainly, during times of plenty, mining can fund immense investments and developments, and the mines of Potosí did indeed help drive the rise of capitalism in Europe. But mineral booms inevitably proceed mineral busts, and planning for the future should ideally require planning for when the ore has been mined out. Returning to Quisbert’s lost petition helps explain some of the appeal of mineral wealth.

Silver production, Potosí. Photo by author, 2013.

Silver production, Potosí. Photo by author, 2013.

What happens if we take seriously this suggestion of refounding an entire mining town? At a time when most observers simply wanted foreign mining companies to share profits, Quisbert wanted to start all over again with a new city. As a location, Corocoro had many things going for it: its location on a rail line that connected to the Arica-La Paz railroad, highways leading to both the mining center of Oruro and La Paz, and a fully developed urban core. Why would a community of merchants want to move further away from transport connections?

It is possible that the new site at Villa Puchuni, at the source of a small stream, had better access to non-polluted water and agricultural land than did Corocoro, though it was just as far from the nearest substantial river, the Rio Desaguadero. Water access has always provided a limit on the mining development in the region, and Corocoro has very little. It is also possible that Quisbert and his merchant allies wanted unmediated access to the crops local indigenous communities could provide, without having to go through ASARCO intermediaries.

But another possibility is the one Quisbert himself suggests: Quisbert did not want a continued connection to the mining company, but a single infusion of cash that would create a clean break and a town founded without the baggage of the old. This is the allure of mining: the possibility of a windfall that would allow a single miner, or a city, or even an entire country to break ties with the past and rebuild a new, and better life. However, mining is a gamble, and like any gambling habit, its profits tend to become indispensable to those who use them.

Quisbert’s petition did not result in a new Corocoro. Rather, when the American mines were brought under Bolivian control in the Revolution of 1952, the city saw much of its material wealth and independence redirected towards a state government that was less foreign but no less corrupt. For a country built upon the backs of exploited workers, the suggestion of leaving the mines behind entirely was more radical than the revolutionaries that would come to power in 1952 could fathom. By the end of the 1970s, Corocoro’s workers were struggling to survive on poverty wages and keep a failing mine from bankruptcy. The city became a ghost town, sacrificing the dream of a vibrant, prosperous new Corocoro for wealth that did not materialize. Ultimately, this last is the paradoxical dream that modern mining economies are built on. With just one more lucky strike, or another influx of cash, couldn’t we all start again?

Featured Image: Abandoned train station, Corocoro. Photo by author, 2013.

Elena McGrath holds a Ph.D. in Latin American history from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is currently a Stipendiary Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London, where she is working on the book manuscript of her dissertation, “Drinking and Dynamite: Revolution and Social Struggle in a Bolivian Mining Town, 1990-1992.” Contact.

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  1. Miguel Quisbert to the Municipality of La Paz, 7 May, 1940 Archivo La Paz Procedimentos Judiciales de la Alcaldia Corocoro, Box 160 

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