Bolivia: Potosí mine at issue in regional strike

Protesters cut off access to the Bolivian mining city of Potosí for most of last month in a dispute with the central government over infrastructure investment. Access to the city of more than 130,000 was blocked by thousands of protesters as part of a civil strike called by the Comité Cívico Potosinista (COMCIPO). The strike was "suspended" after 27 days on Aug. 2, when the city had almost run out of petrol, food and money. But organizers declared President Evo Morales and his cabinet members "enemies of Potosí" and "persona non grata" throughout the department. They also called for the resignation of the city's mayor, William Fernández, and the departmental prefect, Juan Carlos Cejas, both from Bolivia's ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).

COMCIPO is pressing a list of 26 demands for the development of Potosí, including completion of the Supay Chaca-Río Pilcomayo and Río Yura Potosí hydro-electric projects, contrsuction of new roads and bridges in remote areas, new hospitals in underserved areas of Potosí city and outlying areas, settlement of land disputes in Tupiza (where corrupt aithorities are accused of usurping lands for their cronies), special economic zones to encourage new factories, and a resolution of the dispute with Chile over waters of the Río Silala in favor of Potosí residents.

Also among the demands are new mining and oil development in the region. But some of the greivances are related to mining projects. Chile is diverting waters of the Río Silala through a canal built for mining operations over a century ago. Also among the 26 demands is preservation of Cerro Rico, the mountain overlooking the city of Potosí, where a massive silver lode was the source of much wealth for the Spanish empire in the colonial era and is still being exploited today. Over 470 years of digging have left the mountain so riddled with tunnels and sinkholes that geologists say parts of the peak risk collapse, posing a threat to the city below. The government last year ilaunched an ambitious $2.4 million plan to stabilize Cerro Rico's summit by filling in a 700-square meter sinkhole that appeared in 2011. But the San Bartolome open-pit silver mine, owned by Coeur Mining of Chicago, continues to operate on the mountain.

Protesters carried out a similar strike in 2010 that brought Potosí city to a halt and caused food shortages. (MFI, Aug. 25, EFE, Aug. 2; EFE, July 24; El Deber, Santa Cruz, BBC News, July 17; The Guardian, Jan. 10, 2014; International Water Law Project Blog, Oct. 27, 2011)