Under the new constitution approved in January 2009, the state now controls all minerals, metals, precious and semi-precious stones in the country.
While respecting previously granted concessions to private companies, it has restricted new concessions to joint ventures with the state
In 2007, the Bolivian government returned 100% control of the Huanuni tin mine to the state-owned Comibol.
On May 3, the government nationalised the Glencore-owned antimony smelter, which has been out of operation for more than two years.
The decision was taken due to Glencore’s 10-year non-compliance with its investment commitments, instead choosing to begin dismantling the privatised smelter.
It follows on from the government’s 2007 decision to nationalise the Glencore-owned Vinto tin smelter.
However, Comibol is far from having recovered from two decades of disinvestment and privatisation by successive neoliberal governments.
Explaining the need for “strategic partners”, Bolivia’s mining minister Jose Pimentel told Green Left Weekly of the difficulty of accessing credit for industrialisation projects.
“Multilateral or commercial banks generally give loans for infrastructure, electricity, highways but not for industrialisation.
“This has been one of the factors why we have had to seek out strategic partners that can give us the necessary technology and invest capital, and guarantee markets for us.”
But, facing trouble with its “strategic partners”, the government has recently indicated that it may be willing to move ahead independently where possible.
One example is the announcement it will begin mining 50% of the Mutun iron ore deposits. To finance this, the government said it would use revenue from the sale of US$11 million worth of iron ore reserves that Comibol has in storage.
Pimentel also said that after five years of steady economic growth, Bolivia’s currency reserves “have reached $9 billion and I think that some of the projects we have in the pipeline could be directly financed from there”.
Bolivia is also discussing with Venezuela setting up a “grand-national” joint state mining company, within the framework of Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), an anti-imperialist trading bloc launched by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004.
“This is a space that we see as much more important, given that sovereign peoples are beginning to negotiate among themselves in order to replace the transnationals.”
Regarding environmental concerns, Pimentel said, “while we can demand the companies improve their environmental practices by carrying out a more rational and efficient exploitation, we can not ask the same of the workers in cooperatives who live directly from mining”.
“We believe we have to carry out a policy of supporting small producers to solve environmental problems by creating the mechanisms whereby they can carry out their activities without large economic costs.”
A new stricter mining code, combined with “stringently assuring that mining companies respect all environmental problems”, means there should “be no excuse for the mining industry damaging the environment and killing Mother Earth”, Pimentel said.
[Federico Fuentes is a member of the Australian Socialist Alliance currently working in the Green Left Weekly bureau in Caracas, reporting on the radical processes of social change underway in Latin America. He also edits Bolivia Rising and is the co-author, with Marta Harnecker, is the author of MAS-IPSP de Bolivia: Instrumento político que surge de los movimientos sociales, on the Bolivia’s social movements snf the Morales government.]