High costs hit Bolivian tin mines

The grime-covered, husky miner with strong Indian features walked from the darkened mouth of Bolivia's richest state tin mine, another daylong shift at its end.

The 20-year-old worker is a descendant of a people who once belonged to the vast and mighty Inca empire that once extended over smaller, less-powerful tribal groups from southern Colombia to the north of Chile, half a continent away. The young miner is one of about 2,000 Quetchua Indian men who work at the Bolivian Mining Corporation of COMIBOL's huge Huanuni tin complex, four hours by jeep from La Paz in the 15,000-foot- plus Bolivian " altiplano" highland.

COMIBOL produces 70 percent of Bolivia's minerals, and accounts for some 60 percetn of the country's foreign reserve earnings.

Today, Huanuni is the only one of COMIBOL's 17 mining centers that makes money. The others, faced with the highest production costs in the worldwide industry and administrative bungling, lose money on each pound of refined tin they produce.

And while many of the miners might be doing well by Bolivian standards, the state industry they work for is in a state of crisis. In 1980 COMIBOL's tin production was the lowest in 15 years.

Huanuni's per-pound production cost is now $4.06 while some of COMIBOL's mines produce at a cost of $8 to $11 per pound.So far this year the world price on London and New York metals exchanges has hovered around $5.70 to $6.50.

According to the Huanuni general manager, Boris Kosenic, the mine has enough tin to keep producing at current levels for "another 20 years," while other major mine centers like Catavi and Siglo XX will be spent in several more years.

Situated at 3,900 meters (12.870 ft.) above sea-level, one hour over a dusty, often washed-out road from the mining center and city of Oruro, Huanuni was once the richest gem among the string of major tin mines making up the mining empire of Simon Patino earlier in this century. Like those of other mining barons, Patino's holdings were nationalized during the 1952 social revolution and COMIBOL was formed shortly after to administer the highly-productive mines for the state.

"COMIBOL is a social enterprise," says Kosenic. One of its primary goals is to provide stable employment for many Bolivian workers.Currently there are two COMIBOL employees working outside the mines for every one inside, which would in most private mining enterprises be considered administrative "padding."

Workers at the state mines recieve ample benefits, including free housing, schooling, medical care, and low-cost subsidized stape food items. But they pay a price as well. Novice workers receive, in line with each person's output, $ 100 to $300 a month, and many do not survive past their 30s becau se of mine-related illnesses.

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