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Bolivia's Silver Mine regains lost lsutre

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  • Saleem H. Ali
    From Reuters news service *Bolivia s Silver Mountain Regains Lost Lustre* ... POTOSI - Vast silver deposits buried in the mountains around this Bolivian city
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2008
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      From Reuters news service

      *Bolivia's Silver Mountain Regains Lost Lustre*

      POTOSI - Vast silver deposits buried in the mountains around this
      Bolivian city transformed it into one of the world's richest and the
      epicentre of global mining four centuries ago.

      Now, Bolivians are hoping that Potosi, devastated by a collapse of tin
      prices in the 1980s, will regain some of its lost lustre.

      High international mineral prices fed largely by demand from China and
      India have ignited a mining boom in this impoverished colonial city
      perched atop the Andes Mountains.

      Thousands of miners have returned to its mines, hoping to cash in on the
      world's thirst for silver, zinc, and tin -- and bringing some prosperity
      to Potosi, one of Bolivia's poorest regions.

      "This is the best outlook Potosi has had in decades," said German Elias,
      mining director for Potosi's local government.

      Some miners cruise the streets in shiny new sport utility vehicles, a
      sign that a few are already enjoying some of the best prices for
      Bolivian minerals in decades. Real estate prices have also shot up.

      The boom is drawing new prospectors. One-time construction workers,
      mechanics and other labourers have all been lured by the mines, where
      even the lowest wages, around $460 a month, are considered relatively
      good in South America's poorest country.

      That has led to a labour shortage in the city of Potosi, where
      help-wanted signs hang from restaurants and storefronts.

      The economic revival is a reversal of fortunes for many in Potosi, once
      a centre of Bolivia's tin and lead industries.

      When the world tin market crashed in the 1980s, thousands of miners who
      once enjoyed steady pay and benefits with the state mining company lost
      their jobs, and the local economy slumped.

      "It was one of the darkest times I remember. Suddenly you saw kids
      working in the streets. Many people just left," said Jaime Marca, a
      former miner who now leads tours of the area's mines.

      To compensate for the layoffs, the government agreed to allow
      independent and cooperative miners who remained to work the mines
      through government concessions.


      Mining has long been a pillar of the Bolivian economy, and Potosi a
      symbol of Bolivia's mineral wealth.

      In the 1600s, Potosi was the crown jewel of the Spanish colonial empire.

      With more than 120,000 people, Potosi was at the time bigger -- and
      richer -- than London or Paris. Historians say locals ate from silver
      plates and dressed in gold and silk.

      The wealth was rooted in the rich silver deposits in the Cerro Rico, or
      "Rich Mountain", which looms over Potosi. But it came at a brutal cost.
      Spanish conquerors forced indigenous labourers to work the mines in
      appalling conditions, where millions are believed to have died.

      Today some 15,000 miners head into the mines at Cerro Rico every day in
      round-the-clock shifts. Conditions remain harsh and dangerous,
      especially in mines run by cooperatives formed by mine workers.

      Deep in the Rosario mine, Nicanor Mendoza, 21, said he abandoned his job
      as a potato and wheat farmer to take his chances in the mines two years

      "It is difficult work, but I'm making almost double what I made in the
      fields," he said. "Working here is the only way I can get ahead."

      Potosi also has drawn interest from foreign investors. Recent
      investments including the $700 million San Cristobal silver, zinc and
      lead project by Apex Silver Mines Ltd and the $135 million San Bartolome
      silver plant by Couer d'Alene Mines Corp. Canada's Atlas Precious Metals
      also recently announced a $141 million investment in the Karachipampa
      lead-silver plant.

      Some critics warn the increased independent mining activity -- by
      cooperatives that get tax breaks -- is doing little to boost state coffers.

      Many miners' groups have resisted President Evo Morales' attempts to
      increase state control over the industry and raise taxes on their earnings.

      Others warn of the environmental effects of more mining in Potosi, where
      toxic water flows down Cerro Rico's mountainside.

      Still, many are simply relishing the boom.

      Making his way through the tunnels of Cerro Rico, Marca, the tour guide,
      stopped to leave an offering of coca leaves and a lit cigarette at a
      clay god-like figure known as "Tio" and revered by miners as their
      guardian in the mines.

      Marca asked "Tio" to watch over the safety of the miners.

      He quickly added: "And may the international mineral prices ... stay

      (Reporting by Kevin Gray; editing by Fiona Ortiz and Kieran Murray)

      Story by Kevin Gray

      *Story Date:* 29/2/2008

      Saleem H. Ali, Ph.D.
      Associate Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning and
      Associate Dean for Graduate Education (2007-2008)
      Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources
      University of Vermont
      153 S. Prospect St., Burlington VT 05401, USA
      Ph: 802-656-0173
      Fx: 802-656-8015
      Email: saleem@...
      Web: http://www.uvm.edu/~shali

      Latest publication: Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution
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