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Miners are dangerous foes for Bolivia's president

Section: Daily Dispatches

By Eduardo Garcia
via Yahoo News
Friday, February 9, 2007

Roger Mamani rides a rickety elevator deep underground, hikes through flooded tunnels and crawls through a maze of muddy burrows to dig silver ore at the San Jose mine in Bolivia's Andes.

As the 22-year-old crouches and breaks rock with a pickaxe, two fellow miners roll up dynamite in sheets of used notebook paper. They have two minutes to run to safety before a blast shakes tunnels propped up by splintered beams.

For this, they make $30 per day at best, selling their ore to dealers.

But this kind of mining poses a danger not just to the miners themselves, dozens of whom died last year in accidents. It also threatens the government of leftist President Evo Morales.

Bolivia's independent miners had backed Morales during his 2005 presidential campaign, but this week they forced him to relax his controversial proposals to raise taxes on miners.

The miners staged a massive rally in La Paz, Bolivia's capital, tossing dynamite sticks and clashing with police and passers by.

Morales backed down and signed a truce with the protesters on Wednesday, saying the deal marked a reconciliation with the mining cooperatives.

He convinced the leaders to pay more taxes but promised them allowances to soften the blow, including $10 million worth of soft credits.

But negotiations continue, and miners are wary that Morales' final goal is to push mining cooperatives aside to make way for a modernized state mining company.

"They're capable of overthrowing a government," former Mining Minister Jorge Espinoza told Reuters.

Independent miners played a major role in protests that forced President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to step down in 2003, and last year 16 people were killed as miners fought with dynamite for control of Huanuni, Bolivia's largest tin mine.

Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, had vowed to raise taxes on foreign mining companies and independent miners in a bid to quadruple revenue from tin, zinc, wolfram, lead, silver and gold.

An ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Morales nationalized the energy industry last year, forcing foreign companies to pay more of their profits to the state in an effort to spread wealth to the Indian majority.

But in interviews late last month at the San Jose mine, 150 miles south of La Paz, the independent miners said the proposed tax hike -- of 86 percent for silver mining -- threatened their livelihood.

"In the conditions we work in, most of us are never going to reach 55 (retirement age), why should we pay any more taxes?," said miner Ivan Chirri, drinking from a plastic bottle of throat-scorching alcohol. Hundreds of empty alcohol bottles discarded by miners litter the tunnels of the mine.

Independent miners work in mines abandoned by state-owned mining company Comibol in the 1980s after a drop in metals prices forced it to lay off 35,000 workers.

Thousands moved to urban slums but others stayed in the mines where they constantly chew coca leaves, a medicinal herb that is used to make cocaine and helps the body fight hunger and altitude sickness.

San Jose sits at 12,200 feet above sea level and miners' cheeks bulge with coca -- a custom introduced five centuries ago by Spanish conquerors who fed it to enslaved miners in legendary mines such as Cerro Rico in Potosi.

Mining remains a pillar of Bolivia's economy and Espinoza said independent miners account for about 40 percent of exports, which last year totaled $792 million.

At San Jose, father-of-four Chirri said he would fight to the last to save his livelihood.

"Independent mining isn't going to be stamped out, we're going to fight," he said. "What else can we do?

"We've got kids and we've got little to lose."

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