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Resisting the mining law in Bolivia

By Angela Cuenca Sempértegui

The Bolivian economy is traditionally based on the extraction and export of large volumes of unprocessed natural resources, and this type of economy is called 'extractivist'. Mining and hydrocarbons are the most representative economic activities of this type, but what is often forgotten is that it is a case of extraction and exportation of non-renewable resources, resources that we are losing and thi is far worse if the exportation of raw materials (minerals) is controlled by others.

98% of extractive mining industry is run by the private sector (cooperatives and transnational companies). Just 2% is run by the state, meaning that the state has not regained sovereignty over mineral resources. Bolivia is facing serious environmental problems and violation of collective rights that have impacted water supplies, polluted the soils, and effected the health and quality of life of the people that live in territories with mining activities. Mining code Nº 1777, which favours the miners economic interests – and was approved by the ex-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, himself a mining businessman (COMSUR) - is still valid.

In this context, it was clear that a new mining law needed to be created; however, the new law was written and agreed on by mining stakeholders, and has reproduced the environmental and social problems a criminalised communities.

Unexpectedly, in March 2014, the mining bill, (which until then had had "consensus" between the mining stakeholders and the government in secret negotiations), resulted in a national conflict that made the content of the bill public to the rest of the social sectors. It was clear that the bill favoured the interests of the mining lobby, and would allow mining companies to continue to have a negative social impact.

The specific controversy that brought this bill out of silence was the modification of two articles referring to contracts with the mining cooperatives and other businesses. However, the greater impact was that attention was drawn to the fact that the complaints of social organisations and institutions about the dispossession of rights, the criminalization of protest, and the loss of sovereignty over natural resources weren't taken into account.

Stakeholders in the conflict

Indigenous peoples, irrigators, peasants and institutions.- The resistance to the Mining Law began in mid-2012, when rough drafts of the preliminary mining bill were leaked. The demands of the Bolivian people increased in March 2014 before the presentation of the preliminary bill, with a unanimous order from the population that they should "be part of the debate and construction of the Mining Law"

Many resolute votes were issued from social organisations questioning key issues, such as water for life, criminalisation of rights, superimposition of mining rights, previous consultations, and mining in protected areas. Because they were not heard, the irrigatoblocked roadsnd then marched in defence of 'water, natural resources and Mother Earth'. The government started to meet with this sector and made small changes to the law on the theme of water, but the essence of the preliminary mining bill remained the same.

Another measure was led by the National Summit of Social Organisations, that suggested to paralyse the processing of the law in the legislative assembly. Despite there a great social demand with demonstrations, the government ignored it.

The cooperative and salaried miners

Although the difference of positions between cooperative and salaried miners was noted, the measures taken for the prompt approval of the mining bill were the blocking of paths, marches with dynamite in the capital cities and permanent meetings with the national government, until achieving their objective.

The national government

At one point, the government abandoned approving the preliminary mining bill, signalling that because of the conflicts the creation of the law should start again from scratch. However, a few days later, the government changed its mind and continued with the bill, only entering into dialogue with the irrigation sector, and managing to validate their preliminary bill and with the backing of miners in May. The approved law is an anti-indigenous and privatist mining law which condemns Bolivia to extractivism.

1. Implications of the Mining Law

Criminalisation of social struggles. Without doubt, one of the principle obstacles faced by the mining industry for gaining possession of the mining sites, is the resistance of local communities. These communities resist the encroachment of miners on their territories, the contamination of their water supplies and land, and take action in defence of their rights. To resist this "obstacle" the Mining Law establishes sanctions against those who resist mining activity.

The criminalisation of social protest is enshrined in articles 99 to 101 of the law, by way of "legal security" that the public force is employed, and administrative legal cases will take place.nities will be made responsible for “economic damage” that their actions against the mining operators cause.La criminalización contra la protesta social esta contenida en los artículos 99 al 101 de la Ley, a título de “Seguridad Jurídica” se empleara la fuerza pública, se realizaran amparos administrativos, así mismo se hará responsable a las comunidades por los posibles daños económicos que pudieran haber causado las acciones contra los operadores mineros.

  1. - Dispossession of the communities' water and land. Articles 107 to 113 of the Mining Law allows mining companies to expropriate communities and towns of land, water supplies, and other resources. In effect, this is a subsidy from society and nature to the mining operators and, worse still, to private transnational companies. It allows - free of charge – the use of large volumes of water for private economic gain, dispossessing communities of a resource that has a social use. It also contravenes the principles of the privatisation of water, since the dispossession of water in favour of transnational mining companies is in effect a form of privatization.

  2. - Violations of the right to Free and Informed Consultation. Finally, one of the biggest infringements occurs between articles 207 and 216. Firstly, consultation is denied in the exploration phase, which is an open violation of the Political Constitution that clearly establishes that "all administrative or legislative measures that affect the interests of an indigenous people should be placed in consultation". In this case, the authorisation of exploration is clearly an administrative measure, and when related to the conducting of exploration activities within an indigenous territory it has an affect on their interests and rights, therefore the community should be consulted. Secondly, the procedures established in the bill are far removed from the indigenous peoples' own procedures and norms of what a consultation should be; on the contrary, the procedures are closer to being a mere public hearing, of informative character, without space for communities to participate in decision making process.

Who benefits with this mining law

Without any doubt, the new mining law in Bolivia is a law made by miners for miners, and those who will benefit most are the private sector - mining cooperatives and transnational companies. The law, far from strengthening the state-owned COMIBOL, is orientated towards its reduction, compartmentalising COMIBOL to its current operations. On the other side, the law allows for the absolute deprotection and powerlessness of communities affected by a mining operation; the law means that communities have to simply resign themselves to their fate.

Current situation

The mining expansion is beginning to take place in agricultural and farming communities and in protected areas, with intimidation from the mining stakeholders. However, the resistance and the indignation is growing in social organizations and communities, and popular actions are being prepared in rejection of the mining law, but unconstitutional injunctions to the mining law have not been dismissed at either a national or international level.

Angela Cuenca Sempértegui is a member of the CASA Collective in Bolivia