Not all that glitters is gold

Not all that glitters is gold

Page last updated: 14 May 2008

by Max Seitz, BBC Mundo special correspondent in Tipuani, Bolivia

In the Bolivian Amazon region, there exists an area awash with paradoxes.

It is a place where finding gold means you are poor and making a living from mining it implies you will probably die.

That place is Tipuani, a town of 10,000 inhabitants, situated some 300 kilometers to the north of La Paz, also known as the "gold capital".

We travelled there in a 4x4, for eight hours, crossing the "route of death".

It is a narrow rough road with treacherous curves - where motorists are only millimetres away from steep precipices and fatal accidents are a daily occurrence.

This town, situated within the first strip of the Amazon jungle earns its living exclusively from gold mining, but when you see the houses and poor-looking streets you wonder why the precious metal offers no obvious riches.

State versus cooperatives

"Tipuani is one of the largest, if not the largest, gold mining centre in Bolivia", said Hernán Fernández, an official from a local mining cooperative.

"It produces an average of six tons of gold a year", he said.

Here the gold is mined by cooperatives, the miners buy their own machinery and materials, they do not receive any State aid whatsoever.

The workers get to keep any gold that has been leftover after they have paid operational costs and other expenses incurred in order to keep their deposits active - it is usually a very small amount.

According to Roberto Pancorbo, the mining director of the Prefecture of La Paz of which Tipuani is part - Bolivia has around 65,000 miners who belong to a cooperative compared to only 4,000 State miners.

It was only a few decades ago that the State group outnumbered the cooperatives.

The State miners receive a salary and health insurance, while those who belong to a cooperative receive no such benefits.

The situation in Tipuani is a true reflection of how mining has changed in Bolivia.

Hernán Fernández, who is head of the cooperative, took us to see three mines just to the north of the town - San Juanito, Santa Clara and Chima.

Lucky shifts

San Juanito has an enormous underground tunnel, 100 metres in length which leads to a trench where there is a cage-less lift operated by a manually-activated winch.

From there you go down to a series of narrow tunnels as much as 200 metres in depth, supported by flimsy wooden frames and ventilated only by a funnel running through them.

The miners wear boots and helmets with lamps attached and no other protective clothing.

"We have no engineers to advise us, no health and safety or medical aid, the 60 of us who work here just manage the best we can", said Jaime Oliva, head of the mine.

"We don't receive any State aid", he said.

In San Juanito - just as in the other gold deposit areas in Tupiani - people work Monday to Saturday, on three eight-hour shifts.

The miners crush the stone by detonating dynamite and then drilling it.

The crushed stone is transported from the tunnel in carts and thrown into machines which wash and separate the gold from the waste material.

Since most of the gold is re-invested into the cooperative, the daily wage of the miners depends on how lucky they are during any extra hours they work.

Sifting for gold

At the end of the shift, the miners are given small bags of crushed stone to wash.

They go to a nearby river or even a sink and submerge the material in the water, patiently swirling it around until they find small fragments of gold.

A good bagful will yield some 200 grams of the precious metal.

If they don't find anything, they simply leave empty-handed, hoping for better luck next time.

"It took me six hours to find some gold just for me, that's apart from the time spent in the mine, it's the only thing I have to live on", said Ricardo Claros, one of the miners.

As there is no State bank to buy the gold, the cooperatives have to sell it to private "rescuers" or marketeers.

The miners are usually unaware of the international price of gold and consequently, they sell themselves below the market price.

In one mine, we saw them weighing a quantity of gold equivalent in value to US$2,000.

"We can barely survive on what we receive, that's why we live the way we do, no proper drinking water, healthcare or decent education", said Rocio Burgoa Fernandez, one of the weighers.

"People probably think because we have a goldmine, we must be millionaires, but it isn't like that.

"We need financing in order to get ahead and at present, the cooperatives depend solely on money loaned by its own people", he said.

The lack of oxygen, darkness and unstable infrastructure, make working conditions very dire.

The air is contaminated by the smoke and dust produced by dynamite.

"It's a really tough job, you have to work really hard to find enough gold to provide for your family", confessed one of the miners, Andrés Vargas.

"The place is not safe, once a whole load of rubble fell on me. I was lucky to get out alive", he said.

According to Jamie Oliva, the head of the mine, accidents are "common" in San Juanito.

"When there are injuries we deal with them ourselves, if it's anything more serious we have to go a long way to find a doctor.

"If anyone is killed, we look after their families ourselves", he said.

Over the years, nine workers have lost their lives at this mine, caused by flooding in the deeper tunnels.

Village of tragedy

In 2003, a mine in the village of Chima was partially swept away by the collapse of Pucaloma Mountain - which was a consequence of careless excavations of the slopes.

Almost 60 people died and many of the bodies have still not been found.

"I've been left with two children to bring up and to this day, my husband's body has not been found", said Margarita Hilare, who lost her husband in the accident .

"I feel very alone, with nobody to help me.

"I sleep in a tent and try to survive any way I can", she said.

The Bolivian authorities are aware of the cooperatives' suffering, but they believe the first step to take in overcoming their difficulties is legalisation.

That way they would receive technical and economic assistance, as well as appropriate safety standards.

"The majority of the mining operations in Amazonia are illegal.

"We are working on ways of getting them into the system and be guided by the mining code of practice", said Roberto Pancorbo, mining director of the Prefecture of La Paz.