Bolivia has trouble polishing tin's luster

For many years, tin was the mainstay of the Bolivian economy. But falling prices on world tin markets in recent years and increased sales of natural gas to Argentina have cut into the metal's status as a Bolivian export. Trying to reverse this trend, the state mining corporation, Corporaci'on Minera de Bolivia, or Comibol, started a rehabilitation plan three years ago which slashed its work force from 27,000 to 7,000 today. Comibol's management was also decentralized and the number of mines under its operation cut from 14 to 10 - four of which are mining tin and the remaining six producing mainly silver, lead, and zinc.

This year was supposed to mark a turnaround in the fortunes of Comibol, with its mines returning to a more stable financial footing and overall Bolivian tin production reaching 9,000 tons compared with about 3,000 tons in 1987. As it turns out, Bolivia's tin output is expected to be 10,700 tons in 1988, largely due to the private sector mines. Comibol's contribution, however, will only be about 3,800 tons, as the company has been hampered by investment and labor problems.

The heart of Comibol's rehabilitation plan was the restart of tin operations at Empresa Minera Huanuni. The Huanuni mine has a very rich ore quality, and production costs are estimated at $3 a pound for fine tin compared to around $10 a pound for some of Comibol's closed mines. However, attempts to revamp Huanuni's Santa Elena mill were delayed by unexpected technical hitches. Also, Bolivia's mining minister implied that workers had been involved in acts of sabotage.

Industrial relations at the mine have gradually deteriorated throughout the year. Huanuni was supposed to become fully operational in March, but this was delayed due to the mill problems, and Comibol brought in its own police force to stem the high level of ``mine run'' ore.

With the mine operating on two shifts, Comibol claimed the third nighttime shift was being used by the Jucas (ore stealers) to reenter the tunnels and remove ore for sale to private dealers. The union attributed the losses to outsiders, but Comibol charged that the amount of losses would be impossible without inside cooperation. The thefts would provide a lucrative source of income for miners whose average wages total only $40 a month.

Comibol's attempts to introduce a 24-hour, three-shift system culminated in a month-long strike in September. The miners' union claimed that Huanuni's ventilation system was inadequate to operate on such a schedule. The strike was settled by early October, following independent arbitration on the ventilation issue and agreement between the company and union on production bonuses.

The picture is a little brighter elsewhere in the Comibol organization. An exploration at the Centro Minero Carcoles group of mines has revealed two extensive tin veins some 150 meters below the current mining area. Comibol sources say the new finds will double Carcoles' output from the 113 tons of fine tin produced during the first half of 1988.

Although current tin production at Carcoles is lower than it was three to four years ago, the metal is being produced more economically because of the whittling down of the 1,000-strong work force to 220.

The company plans to cut costs further by moving the mill closer to the point of production. Meanwhile, Comibol's other facilities are mining tin on a very small scale, if at all; mines at Santa F'e, San Jos'e, San Vincente, and Potosi are concentrating on silver.

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