Dan Keane, May 14, Associated Press
Potosi, Bolivia — The silver, zinc and other metals under Bolivian soil are fetching their highest prices in decades, and Evo Morales has dedicated his presidency to claiming a larger share of the money for his country's people.
But first he'll have to deal with miners like Marco Taboada.
Swinging a sledgehammer, a plug of coca leaves in his cheek, Taboada is a formidable sight and one of about 60,000 independent Bolivian miners organized into small cooperatives.
These men mostly backed Morales' 2005 landslide election, but are ready to fight his efforts to impose more state control over their industry.
"We're like a time bomb," Taboada said. "Throw it and you'll see."
Bolivia is the world's fourth-largest tin producer and a significant source of silver and zinc, but kept less than 5 percent of the profits from mining last year.
Morales aims to change that by raising taxes and seizing the occasional foreign-owned business, such as the smelter he took back from Swiss mining giant Glencore in February.
But going after foreign interests is an easier sell than challenging the independents, proud workers willing to risk their short, hard lives defending their piece of the mineral boom.
"We don't have much of a life. It's not like outside," Taboada, 23, said during an interview deep inside the Cerro Rico, a rust-colored peak looming over Bolivia's historic mining city of Potosi.
"If we all went up there (to the capital of La Paz), all the miners, we could kill all the police with dynamite."
It's no empty threat.
In October, miners from the cooperatives stormed the state-operated Huanuni mine demanding more access to its rich tin deposits. State-employed miners fought back, and the two sides exchanged gunfire and threw dynamite. Sixteen died before police restored order.
And when Morales announced a tax increase on mineral revenue in February, 20,000 cooperative miners converged on La Paz, hurling dynamite through the streets.
The government quickly made peace, freezing taxes at current levels and pledging $20 million in badly needed new technology for the cooperatives.
Months later, Morales is still eyeing a tax hike — and hoping the miners have outgrown their dynamite displays.
Cooperatives produce roughly a third of the nation's mineral ore and employ more than 80 percent of its miners — an immense bloc with a record of squeezing concessions from Bolivian leaders.
And mistrust of the government runs deep in the cooperatives, many of which formed after the state mining company Comibol laid off 27,000 miners during a 1980s crash in global mineral prices. Determined to survive where the state failed, many banded together.
Working conditions in the cooperatives are often grim, with miners chasing narrow veins through asbestos-choked wormholes in the rock. Most still work with hammer and chisel, and use wheelbarrows to haul the ore out to trucks.
Many cooperatives pay minimal wages and treat employees like slaves, Morales says. The salaries have jumped with today's high mineral prices, to between $9 and $20 per day. But for all the inefficiency and danger — no one keeps count of the injuries and deaths — the cooperatives provide jobs that South America's poorest country can hardly replace.
Published at Houston Chronicle