Bolivia’s government attacks illegal mining and provokes protests from the population

Security forces set fire to a dredger used for illegal mining, in the Madre de Dios River, in the province of Beni (Bolivia), on July 14.Bolivia’s government ministry (via Reuters)

The government of Luis Arce carried out the first major operation against illegal gold mining in the Bolivian Amazon. On Saturday, the police destroyed 27 floating dredgers that were exploiting the mineral in the Madre de Dios river in the northwest of the country, and arrested 57 people. Bolivia begins to act against mercury pollution of rivers in the country’s northwest, which poisoning of indigenous peoples living on the beaches. But the government has received a response from the residents themselves, who are besieging Riberalta, the city closest to the area where the police have intervened. The protests rejected the “violence” of the police action and viewed it as biased against Bolivian miners, as there are others of Chinese and Peruvian descent in the area who have not been harassed.

vice president David Choquehuanca He congratulated the Minister of Government (Interior) Eduardo del Castillo for the mobilization of one hundred police officers for six days and the arrests made: “All necessary measures must be taken to protect the health of our population and to preserve Mother Earth,” he tweeted.

Bolivia is heavily polluted with mercury used by gold cooperatives, which are supposed to be mining for survival, but in many cases they are camouflaged companies that make high profits and even receive foreign investment. Those arrested in the operation were salaried employees of the Asopal Co-op, but were listed as “volunteers” so as not to be seen as a mining company. According to authorities, Asobal did not have an exploitation permit or an environmental license and used mercury in an “uncontrolled manner.” It was just one of 37 farms on the banks of the Madre de Dios.

In 2016, Bolivia purchased 238 tons of mercury and became one of the world’s largest importers. Toxic sustainability In the world. This amount has decreased in recent years, but it is still very high. Several biochemical analyzes have concluded that members of the indigenous Esse Ejja, Lecos, Mosetenes Chimanes, Tacanas, and Uchupiamona communities who live around two rivers in the Bolivian Amazon Basin, Madre de Dios and Beni, have between two and seven times more mercury in their bodies than normal. In May, Colombian scientist Jesús Oliver told this newspaper that he had conducted assessments of the health status of the indigenous people and “the report of amnesia, tremors in the hands and sensory problems of a large number of people has been remarkable.” This indicates that their fish-based diet leads to their poisoning. In the colonial period of Bolivia’s history, mercury was used in silver mines, killing countless indigenous lives, and certainly shortening and worsening the lives of many Spaniards.

Although the operation in the Madre de Dios River indicates that the Bolivian government is willing to take political risks to try to reverse the pollution and tax evasion typical of illegal mining, the task is not easy. Two of the detained miners were from the Leko Indian tribe, so the political leaders of this community are protesting against the authorities. After the police moved, the residents of Riberalta attacked the local airport, which stopped operating and put it out of action. The Federation of Mining Cooperatives is in a state of emergency “in defense of its sources of labor”. Civil committees in Beni, where the conflict zone is located, protested the destruction of rigs in rafts, in accordance with the mining law, and announced upcoming mobilizations. In addition, it is estimated that there are about a thousand golden cooperatives, 85% of which do not have an environmental license. In order to obtain a license, it is necessary to introduce technology that minimizes the role of mercury in the gold production process, but this presents a cost and encounters some technical difficulties.

Opposition Senator Cecilia Requina, a benchmark for Bolivian environmentalists, sees Arce and Minister del Castillo acting late, when “the beast has already gotten out of control.”

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In 2022, Bolivia exported 64 tons of gold worth just over $3,000 million, much more than it exports soybeans and about the same as it got from the sale of gas. The total could be even higher, with some part estimated to be smuggled, taking advantage of the fact that gold is relatively easy to transport. Not all of this gold is produced in Bolivia. Part arrives, also smuggled, from Peru, where the control of illegal mining is greater than that of Bolivia in recent times. In any case, it is a huge business that feeds thousands and enriches hundreds of families.

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