mining for a change

You can’t help passing through the mining town of Oruro if you travel up from Cochabamba on the way to La Paz, Bolivia, by rail.

You can’t help passing through the mining town of Oruro if you travel up from Cochabamba on the way to La Paz, Bolivia, by rail.

My train trek up from the comfortably temperate palm-lined avenues and parks of Cochabamba took only about five hours, but Oruro seemed almost another planet away.

Located up on the cold, windy southern altiplano, the high plain of the Andean mountain ranges of South America, it sits at over 3,700 metres.

They obviously never get as deep a freeze as we have had here in the Yukon lately but still it is enough to chill you to the bone.

Somehow the nearly 200,000 mainly indigenous Quechua residents manage to hang on there. Mining jobs in this poor country hold them close to the barren, mineral rich mountains surrounding the city.

First, it was silver that saw the Spanish conquistadors of the mid-16th century force quotas of native labourers from their villages in the region.

They had to abandon their flocks and fields for picks and shovels.

Never as famous as the spectacular silver lode of Cerro Rico near Potosi, seven hours further south from Oruro by train, mining has been going on there just as long.

The one local mine, the Mina San José, claims to have been in operation for more than 450 years.

Wealth measured in literally billions of today’s dollars from these highland mines flowed back to Spain to fund conspicuous consumption and continental wars for the aristocracy.

Arguably the foundation of Europe’s industrial revolution came from wealth extracted, in no small measure, from here.

One key to the Spanish success in extracting so much silver from their Andean mines came from a discovery made hundreds of kilometres to the north.

The Santa Bárbara mercury mine began operating in 1563 near Huancavelica, Peru. Mercury provided the essential component for the ‘patio process’ of extracting the silver from its native ore.

Mining this toxic element became a virtual death sentence for the dragooned native miners toiling there.

Local legends have it that mothers would break their son’s bones rather than see them being sent to the mercury mines at Huancavelica.

In his book The Last Inca Revolt 1780-1783, L. E. Fisher estimates that more than eight million native lost their lives in mining the riches of the Americas over the 300 years of Spanish colonial occupation.

A price continues to be paid.

Tin replaced silver as the mainstay of Oruro’s mining economy. In addition copper, wolfram plus traditional silver and gold are exploited locally as well.

Still despite the mineral wealth Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America.

The per-capita gross domestic product, a measure of the economic strength of a country, sits at about eight per cent of ours.

Who has profited from their labour and land?

Groundwater contamination, remobilized mercury from abandoned mine tailings, a scarred landscape and a host of other social, economic and environmental issues are not only a legacy of mining in Bolivia.

Closer to home, we can see the physical scars left from our own mining history from the Klondike Gold Rush on.

What about today?

Awareness has certainly increased. Technological advances hold out the possibility of greatly lessening potential environmental damage from resource extraction.

Still there are problems.

Over the last week, I received e-mails on environmental and human rights issues concerning Canadian mining ventures in Guatemala, Colombia and Ecuador.

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has launched a national campaign urging our Minister of Foreign Affairs “to refuse Canadian government support to mining companies that do not respect international environmental and human rights standards.”

The organization is also calling on Ottawa to “develop legal mechanisms that ensure mining companies are held accountable for their actions in the Global South.”

For more information on the campaign visit www.devp.org .