Fool’s gold

Illegal mining is destroying Bolivia’s Amazon as local co-operatives partner with Chinese mining companies.

Illegal gold mining is a growing problem in Bolivia and the authorities seem to be doing very little about it. What started as small co-operatives of local artisanal gold miners has turned into large-scale extraction of the precious metal from within Bolivia’s Amazon rainforest. In a concerning development, our sources are reporting a growing presence of Chinese mining companies partnering with co-operatives to increase extraction in the protected northern regions of Bolivia’s La Paz department. 

A Bolivian environmentalist felt helpless, “Illegal gold mining in Bolivia has all the components to be an environmental disaster of major proportions and nothing is being done to control it. They are extracting from protected areas by removing tons of sediment from rivers and separating the gold use mercury to keep the costs low. Then they throw all the waste back into the rivers. Local communities already have health problems and they have tried to complain, but they are being intimidated by transnational mafia groups. Some of the miners are Chinese, but they have the support of criminal gangs from Colombia and Brazil.” 

Illegal gold mining in Bolivia has all the components to be an environmental disaster of major proportions and nothing is being done to control it.”

Environmentalist, Bolivia

These Chinese mining companies often enter the country by obtaining a preliminary licence to carry out viability studies but, once on the ground, they start operating without the necessary permits, arguing that the paperwork is being processed by the authorities. The co-operatives are happy to welcome them, explained a former vice-minister of the economy, “The co-operatives have an extremely beneficial tax regime so they want to maximise production, but it is forbidden for them to give concessions to other companies. So, taking advantage of the absence of the state, they are partnering with Chinese companies that will have no scruples about destroying the environment and intimidating indigenous communities.” 

“Taking advantage of the absence of the state, [co-operatives] are partnering with Chinese companies that will have no scruples about destroying the environment.”

Former Vice Minister of the Economy, Bolivia

Tensions are increasing around mining sites, as worried by the environmental impact of illegal mining activities, local leaders and indigenous communities have started attacking miners. Lawmakers have recurrently visited the area hearing first-hand how locals blame the government for its inaction. Notably, in September 2021, the UN special rapporteurs on toxics and human rights submitted a letter to the Bolivian government calling out for the executive’s passiveness on the regulation of small-scale mining. 

Some government sources claim that there is no resource to deal with the problem but the Bolivian environmentalist believes the reality is much worse, “The government is afraid of the co-operatives and can appease them by turning a blind eye to the illegal gold mining. It is their little public policy to alleviate the economic crisis and win votes from the cooperatives – by destroying the environment.” 

In September 2022, the UN special rapporteur formally called for the ban of mercury trade and its use in gold mining before the UN Human Rights Council. The report used hair samples taken from indigenous communities in Bolivia that showed mercury levels in excess of the safe limit set by the World Health Organisation. The report also highlighted the risks of liquid mercury evaporating into the atmosphere and washing away into rivers, lakes and oceans, and ultimately entering the food chain. 

In parallel, activists complain about the lack of public information on which mining companies operate in protected areas with the consent of government authorities. The current legal framework allows miners to work in reserves if they can prove that they already operated in the area before they became protected. Meanwhile, both the Bolivia’s National Service of Protected Areas and the Bolivian Ministry of the Environment fail to actively combat illegal gold mining in the country. 

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