Magazine article Geographical

Geopolitical Hotspot: Bolivia

Magazine article Geographical

Geopolitical Hotspot: Bolivia

Article excerpt

In September, news broke that miners associated with a private mining co operative had set up road blockades around the Bolivian city of La Paz. The blockages were reportedly affecting access to La Paz and disrupting traffic heading towards the borders with Chile and Peru. A state miner was then killed and nine others injured after union offices came under attack during a march by dynamite hurling protesters affiliated with private cooperatives. While protesting isn't unusual in Bolivia, these incidents revealed the extent of a dispute over the management of the country's second-largest tin and zinc mine.

Previously owned by the Swiss company Glencore, via its subsidiary Sinchi Wayra, the Colquiri mine was nationalised by the Bolivian government in June. The company protested against the decision and warned that the move would deter foreign investment in Bolivia's mining sector. The current dispute, however, concerns whether a private co operative or the state run Bolivian Mining Corporation should operate the mine.

The exploitation and management of resources looms large in Bolivia's recent history, and helps to explain why the control of one mine is such an emotive subject. In essence, Bolivia, a country of some ten million people, is one of the most socially divided in South America.

Minerals and energy resources such as natural gas have provided the basis for the country's wealth, but such wealth creation remains concentrated among urban elites, primarily of Spanish ancestry. Bolivia's population comprises indigenous Amerindians, Mestizos (people of mixed heritage) and those of European, Asian and African origin. The indigenous population forms the majority (about 60 per cent), and although Spanish is the most widely spoken language, indigenous languages such as Quechua and Guarani are a noticeable feature or everyday life.

Given that most Bolivians are either subsistence farmers or artisanal miners, it's clear that a profound ethnic-linguistic schism runs through the heart of Bolivian society. This schism, and the poverty that underlies it, have played a central role in a post-colonial history characterised by coup, counter coup and instability. Democratic rule was only established in 1982, despite the fact that Bolivia gained independence from Spain in 1825,

Bolivian's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, was elected in December 2005. The Movement Towards Socialism party won by a landslide, after Morales promised a new deal for the country's poor and indigenous majority, involving greater income and land redistribution. …

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