Essay on Environmental Problems Due to Mining in Bolivia


Among all Latin American countries, Bolivia has particularly suffered from resource exploitation of the past. Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America. According to Revette, “there are constant references to the poor state of the roads, electricity, communications, water, sanitation, garbage and education” (Revette 153). The department around the Salar of Bolivia suffers from “high poverty rates, malnutrition, limited health infrastructure and an insufficient educational system” (Revette 153).

Contamination from both large and small scale mining in Bolivia poses serious ecological and health issues with the leaching of chemicals from both types of mining throughout Bolivia. Half of Bolivian mines are run by co-ops which are operated by the miners themselves (18:11Journeyman Pictures). Severe poverty prevents the miners in these small scale, co-op mining operations from being able to afford safety measures. These miners often risk negative health consequences from contamination of the mines they work in (18:18 Journeyman Pictures). These small scale mines also pose health risks to communities near and far from the mine sites as run off of stream water from these mines goes directly into the city water supply (18:33 Journeyman Pictures). Run off from these small scale mines contain nickel, arsenic and lead. These chemicals are known to “leads to deformity and brain damage in children” (18:37 Journeyman Pictures).

Large scale mining also poses environmental risks in Bolivia. The Antequera River which flows into Lake Poopo is “contaminated by acid drainage and heavy metal that leach from numerous mines, most notably the Bolivia and Marta mines” which are owned and operated by a foreign multinational company (Perreault 441). These mines are “massive” and belowground as opposed the more common open-pit mining method (Perreault 441). Both the Boliviar and Marta mines produce “silver, lead and zinc which are most commonly produced in the area” (Perreault 441). According to local residents, the Huanuni River is also “polluted to the extreme” from acid run off and “mine waste that is systematically discharged directly into the river,” which carries the pollution downstream, affecting other nearby communities (Perreault 445,446). Bolivia’s new venture of mining Lithium poses its own unique environmental issues as well. It takes 500,000 gallons of water to produce one ton of Lithium which could impact neighboring communities’ water supply (1:30 Now This World).

Past exploitation of natural resources from neoliberal policies has left the country of Bolivia extremely poor, lacking in basic infrastructure, education and health services. It is obvious to Bolivia’s citizens that they have not benefited from past natural resource extraction. Currently, Bolivia possesses half of the world’s Lithium supply (1:50 Journeyman Pictures). In the late 1980’s the use of Lithium began to rise in popularity. The processed powdered form, Lithium Carbonate, is the world’s lightest metal (4:22 Journeyman Pictures). Lithium can store “lots of power in a little space making it ideal for batteries” (43s Now This World). Lithium now has many uses such as for batteries in phones, laptops, for nuclear weapons, to treat depression and for electric cars (4:52 Journeyman Pictures).

Major protests of water and gas issues in Bolivia helped bring Evo Morales to presidency, who campaigned on a hydrocarbon decree (Revette 156). As Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, his administration has had both positive and negative consequences for the people of Bolivia. According to a local interviewee by Revette, under Morales “there have been changes…before there was nothing, no electricity, no basic services” (Revette 158). Like many presidents, initially Morales had unrealistic plans that appealed to the Bolivian people such as the “prioritization of state control over natural resources, expansion of social programs and rejection neo-liberalism” (Revette 150). Bolivia has had a particular painful history with regard to mining with millions of Bolivians dying in the mines when the mines were controlled by foreign actors (17:45 Journeyman Pictures).

Taking into consideration Bolivia’s past exploitation of natural resources by the Spanish empire and then foreign corporations, Morales initially had high standards around how the potentially highly profitable Lithium would be controlled (17:20 Journeyman Pictures). In the beginning of his presidency, Morales had two different plans around Lithium extraction. His first plan was to manufacture it by the state, but this proved to be too technologically complicated of a process for the impoverished country of Bolivia. His second plan was that Bolivia would receive 50% of the profits from any foreign corporation that manufactured its Lithium supply. Bolivia did eventually have foreign corporations begin to manufacture its Lithium. Though we do not have access to the terms between these foreign corporations and Bolivia, given the history of past deals of natural resource extraction in Latin America, it is unlikely that Bolivia is receiving 50% of the profits of the manufacturing of its Lithium supply.

The Evo Morales administration has contributed to many constitutional changes and codes in the Bolivian constitution and law. Many of these written changes address such issues as mining and hydrocarbon law. With regards to the hydrocarbon law there is an “opt-out” clause that permits the state to ignore the results of consultation. One new law states that “In a case where the consultation, recognized in Article 115, has a negative result, the State can promote a process of reconciliation in the greatest national interest” (Perreault 438). Another law of the Bolivian Constitution declares, “the right to free, prior and informed consultation, carried out by the state for the indigenous originario campesino nations and peoples, intercultural communities, and Afrobolivian people, as an obligatory, collective and fundamental right” (Perreault 439). Yet despite the creation of these new laws by the Morales’ administration, Morales himself has declared that “the consultations are constitutionalized, but they are not obligatory” and has also referred to consults as a “waste of time,” an “obstacle” to development, and a form of “blackmail”” where indigenous groups “demand money”(Perreault 440).

The public and audience consults in the Bolivia Constitution are purely symbolic in nature and do not have any legal or binding effect on the state or private companies. I believe that the new laws on consultation were created primarily to entertain international actors such INGO’s and other groups who had expressed concern with human and environmental rights in Bolivia. To a much lesser extent, the consult laws might have been an afterthought to control the Bolivian communities who have been badly affected by the environmental hazards of the mining industries.

The state has used a variety of tactics and techniques to prevent the general public of Bolivia from attending, speaking or meaningfully participating in both the public and audience consults (Perreault 439). Perreault describes how the Antequera consult he attended was intentionally held at an inconvenient, far away location from the community the consult was intended to seek a response from. No reason was given for the strange location of the consult (Perreault 442). At this same consult, the discussion was strictly limited and “no complaints or denunciations were to be allowed, and other issues would not be discussed” (Perreault 442). At this same consult, each person was permitted to speak for a maximum of five minutes, which interestingly enough is the exact same amount of time the general public has to speak at public Portland City Council hearings. Rather coincidentally, members of the public who are not well practiced or are hesitant at public speaking often have their allotted time cut short and are not allowed to speak a full five minutes about grievances related to Portland or Multnomah. Perreault goes on to describe how one representative of the state, Ingeniera Gonzalez from the Ministry of Environment, often interrupted speakers and would stop them if they went beyond the rules or boundaries at the Antequera consult. This state representative is described to have a clear bias about who could speak and who couldn’t.

She often interrupted women, particularly rural women who the state has had historical discrimination against. These women are believed to be “unrefined, uneducated and ultimately unworthy of serious consideration” of opinion at these legally mandated public consults (Perreault 443). When serious issues were raised at the Antequera consult, the same state representative interrupted and limited discussion “attempting to narrow the discussion” (Perreault 444).

Another consult that took place in Huanani, which was held by COMIBOL, Corporacion Minera de Bolivia, which is Bolivia’s state mining company, also did not allow meaningful participation regarding potentially life or death issues such as the pollution from COMIBOL’s mining which contained “heavy metals and other toxins used in processing ore” that was being dumped into nearby rivers (Perreault 445). One resident complained that the “participatory process had not been truly participatory, since the company knew from the start what it was going to do” and “ the project had already been planned in full and the company was merely completing the steps necessary to obtain the environmental license” (Perreault 445).

 

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