What does an environmentalist do in the mining industry?

The government of Bolivia's La Paz Department has started focusing on ‘responsible mining’, considering personal and environmental health.

Mining is deeply embedded in the national identity of Bolivia. In colonial times, so much silver from mines in the southern region of Potosí was shipped to Europe that people said a bridge of silver could be built from the top of Cerro Rico to the royal palace’s entrance in Spain. Since then, Bolivia has been an epicentre for the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources extracted from mines – such as silver, copper, tin, zinc, and gold.

The country’s mining boom has come at an extremely high cost; between 1500 and 1800, around eight million slaves died in Potosí. Still today, miners risk their lives to provide for their families.

Nowadays, mining is also criticised for its environmental impact – as a cause of biodiversity loss in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. The practice leads to soil erosion and the contamination of surface water, groundwater, soil and air.

To counteract this, the government of the La Paz Department recently started a programme for responsible mining, which aims to change the mentality of the miners - in terms of environmental and social issues, work safety and appropriate economic management - and to support miners that show a willingness to improve the way they view and use natural resources.

In charge of the program is María de los Ángeles Bejarano, an engineer in environment and natural resources.

“I had never imagined I would be engaged in the mining industry. It is not only a challenging job as a woman, but also because I care about the environment. However, Bolivia is a traditional mining country, and the mining industry is so important for many Bolivian families. Bolivians are miners,” 29 year old María de los Ángeles says.

“It is regrettable that many miners do not have the technical knowledge and the adequate technology to develop the mining activity in harmony with the environment”, she adds.

“But this is what we are working for now.”

“Mining belongs in La Paz”

Since the government programme was initiated in 2019, María de los Ángeles has visited several mining cooperatives in the La Paz Department to better understand the daily life of the miners. She has felt the extreme temperatures they work under; she has stayed in mining camps for several days; and she has shared food and a place to sleep with the miners.

The mines are often in very remote areas of the altiplano, around 3,900 metres above sea level, and can take up to ten hours by car on some of country’s most dangerous roads to reach.

“Visiting the cooperatives has allowed me to see the reality of the miners; understanding their needs, mainly the economic, but also the technical, so they will be able to work without causing considerable negative impacts to both the environment in which they live, but also to their own health.”

“After visiting the cooperatives, I became aware that these people need mining. As a Bolivian, this is something I cannot ignore. Mining belongs in La Paz,” she explains.

In the La Paz Department, there are around 1,500 cooperatives. The Department has the country’s largest mining workforce, with 51,770 socios (partners), who together with their families represent around 200,000 people dependent on mining.

“My hope with this new project is to plant a seed. Establish a model for responsible mining for the cooperatives, respecting the rights of Mother Earth, the culture and the customs, while also promoting gender equality.”

“When mining is already happening, then what we can do is to make sure that the miners work in a way that affects the environment as little as possible,” says María de los Ángeles.

“Some miners do not know enough about the effects of their industry on their surroundings and mainly think about economical benefits, yes. But they are dependent on mining and it is out of necessity they work in this industry. Many miners do simply not have any other option.”

As a professional, María de los Angeles organises workshops, where she offers technical support and teaches good practice to the miners to help them reduce the impacts on the environment. In particular, her team of four aims to raise awareness about the negative effects of using mercury.

15% of Bolivian gold mining still relies on traditional techniques that involve the inappropriate use of mercury, which contaminates the surrounding environment and damages the health of the miners and neighbouring communities. María de los Angeles’ objective is full compliance with the Minimata Convention on Mercury, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury.

Machismo in mining

It’s not just the environment that is at risk from extraction in Bolivia. So too is the health of the miners themselves, many of whom remain unaware of the risk of illness. Many miners die from accidents, from falling or using the machines, but others suffer from respiratory and stomach diseases.

“Traditional mining involves many risks, and there will always be accidents. I have seen how miners work, how they risk their lives, and I want to help them take better care of themselves. The La Paz Department covers many ecosystems, and people work in different kinds of weather, but working at 3,900 metres above sea level is rough. It is very cold, so it is surprising that people can even work at this height, right?”

Bolivian mines are undoubtedly a tough place to earn a living, especially for women, who are more present now than ever before. According to the country’s national mining corporation (COMIBOL), there are 3,000 female miners – 600 of whom work inside the mines as palliris. This is a Quechua term meaning ‘to harvest’ or ‘to collect’; it is used only for the female miners who sort the minerals extracted from the mines.

Sometimes women enter the mining industry when their miner husbands die and they suddenly have to support their families. Not only is mining an extremely physical demanding job, women also have to fight discrimination and risk becoming victims of violence. Machismo still dominates Bolivian society, and mining is not considered an appropriate domain for women.

“Many end up in mining by coincidence. But as there are not many jobs in Bolivia, where 70 percent work in the informal sector (i.e. selling food on the streets), many prefer working in the mining industry. For women in particular it is a very hard job. They work many hours, and sometimes they leave their kids for up to 15 days, and then they also have to fight against machismo in mining, because most of the miners are still men. I respect that a lot.”

As a woman herself in a male-dominated industry and society, María de los Ángeles feels it is especially important that she engages with the women in the mining cooperatives she oversees.

“My hope with this new project is to plant a seed. Establish a model for responsible mining for the cooperatives, respecting the rights of Mother Earth, the culture and the customs, while also promoting gender equality,” she says.

Mette Mølgaard is a freelance journalist with an MSc in Development and International Relations/ Latin American Studies. Now based in Copenhagen, she previously lived in Bolivia for a year working at the Danish Embassy and UN Women in La Paz.