The Radicalization of Miners in Andean South America

1 June 2012


Mining is the paradigmatic resource-extraction industry. For the miners themselves, mining has always been dirty, dangerous, and difficult. Technological improvements have made mining slightly less dangerous than it was, but it is still a dangerous activity, as even today miners continue to be trapped underground in mining accidents that capture the world’s attention. Technology has also allowed mining to become a Brobdingnagian industry, scaled up to a seemingly inhuman enormity, leveling entire mountains and permanently altering landscapes.

Mining has often been the only industry to operate in relatively isolated areas — one must mine where the resources are, which means creating an industrial infrastructure in the middle of the wilderness, hiring locals as miners who may have never before worked in any industrial occupation, and transporting the extracted minerals to distant markets, which also means a transportation network. I tried to make this point in my post on Appalachia and American Civilization, where I wrote:

When the Industrial Revolution came to Appalachia, it came in the form of mining. The furnaces of the Industrial Revolution needed coal, and coal was there to be mined. So while earlier industries bypassed isolated Appalachia, the need for coal drove the industrial development of the region. And after a long history of poverty, the mining jobs were welcome.

What was true of isolated Appalachia has been true to many isolated regions of the world that have been discovered to possess mineral wealth. To all these regions, the Industrial Revolution arrived in the form of mining. Of Appalachian mining I also wrote:

Industrial scale mining requires a major capital investment, and this guaranteed that the industries involved in developing coal mining in the region would be very large companies with major capital resources. And the nature of mining guaranteed that the labor involved is difficult and dangerous in the extreme. Miners live an unenviable life. The harshness of the life of the average miner and the capital required by an industry to develop large scale coal mining virtually guaranteed a profound disconnect between management and labor in Appalachia’s coal mining industry.

The relative isolation of many mineral rich regions has meant that there was little in the way of local capital available to develop the resource extraction industries that could be supported by the minerals; this in turn means that the capital and the expertise must come from outside. When the investment and the expertise all comes from outside, that leaves only the most menial and difficult jobs for the local labor force, which, before the arrival of the mining industry, may never have been employed in any industrial occupation, never have punched a time clock, never have worked for wage labor, and never before have seen what industrialized civilization looks like.

In other words, the typical worker that gets recruited to be a miner goes more-or-less directly from subsistence farming in an agriculturally marginal area, probably will little or no formal education, into industrial wage labor. For these individuals, the industrial revolution is experienced personally as a personal revolution (a micro-temporal revolution). This change is so radical (and in most societies is played out over decades or more) one cannot be surprised that those who experience this radical change are themselves radicalized. The workers are first radicalized by their work, in so far as the change from isolated subsistence agriculturalism to industrialization constitutes a radical change in way of life; an individual open to one radical change is likely to be open to another radical change, and another after that. This is one course (inter alia) of political instability.

The Spanish treasure fleet was filled with silver from Potosí, brought overland to the Panamanian port of Nombre de Dios by mule train.

This process of radicalization through radical change in life — social change experienced directly as personal change — has a long history in Andean South America, and it began in Potosí, where the Spanish found a mountain literally made of silver. The system of colonial overlords overseeing vast numbers of peasant laborers — the model of development that the Spanish imposed throughout Spanish America — was iterated on an industrial scale in Potosí. The city is now a UNESCO Heritage site, which the organization describes as follows:

“Potosí is the one example par excellence of a major silver mine in modern times. The city and the region conserve spectacular traces of this activity: the industrial infrastructure comprised 22 lagunas or reservoirs, from which a forced flow of water produce the hydraulic power to activate the 140 ingenios or mills to grind silver ore. The ground ore was then amalgamated with mercury in refractory earthen kilns called huayras or guayras. It was then moulded into bars and stamped with the mark of the Royal Mint. From the mine to the Royal Mint, the whole production chain is conserved, along with dams, aqueducts, milling centres and kilns. Production continued until the 18th century, slowing down only after the country’s independence in 1825.”

It was primarily the silver from Potosí that filled the Spanish treasure ships that each year brought the wealth of the New World to the Old World, and it was the same massive influx of silver into the Spanish economy that caused one of the first ruinous episodes of hyperinflation in human history, more or less marginalizing the Spanish economy in Europe until the twentieth century.

An illustration of Potosi from 1553, already famous for its silver mines.

Potosí is in what is now Bolivia, and Bolivia continues to have a remarkable history of miner-led strikes and social struggles. Moreover, since miners have access to dynamite, these struggles often become violent and deadly. One revolt by Bolivian miners has been called a revolution (cf. 60 years since the 1952 Bolivian revolution), and the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB) continues to be a force in Bolivian politics (cf., e.g., Bolivian miners reject foreign investors).

A famous photograph from the 1952 Bolivian revolution led by miners.

Before the miner-led 1952 revolution, radical leaders of the FSTMB in 1946 formulated the “Pulacayo Theses” (“Las Tesis de Pulacayo”), which is a remarkable document by any measure — radical in conception, sweeping in scope, and detailed in its provisions. The third of these theses is this:

Bolivia pese ha ser país atrasado sólo es un eslabón de la cadena capitalista mundial. Las particularidades nacionales representan en sí una combinación de los rasgos fundamentales de la economía mundial.

Bolivia despite being backward country has only one link in the global capitalist chain. National peculiarities represent an original combination of the fundamental features of the global economy.

This is precisely the point I have tried to make, and which is implicit in my book Political Economy of Globalization: resource extraction industries, and particularly those that visit upon their host countries the “resource curse,” are not the outgrowth of broadly-based economic development. In the words of the Pulacayo Theses, such extraction points are linked to the global economy at only one point. This is a fragile link to the main body of industrial-technological civilization, and a vulnerable link.

Many strikes by miners, not only in Bolivia but all over the world, have been epic in proportion, dragging on for years and involving thousands (even in the heart of the industrialized world, as in the UK miners’ strike of 1984–1985). Some of these strikes have been more like miniature civil wars than industrial actions. Recently Peru has seen violent and deadly conflicts over mining (c.f., Peru anti-mining protest leader arrested near Cusco). In Peru, as in Bolivia, mining is big business. It is, in fact, again like Bolivia, the most obvious way in which the global economy is connected to Peru.

Peru is the second largest producer of copper in the world and the sixth largest producer of gold. Global mining companies have invested billions in the extraction of these minerals, and are set to invest more. The Peruvian economy is among the most dynamically growing in Latin America at present, and it seems set to join Brazil and Chile as a stable democratic nation-state in which the quality of lives of the citizens gradually yet predictably improves. This is something like a miracle if we recall the state of affairs in Peru during the worst of the Sendero Luminoso years (though the group is still in existence and even regularly updates a website — and there is also the “Committee to Support the Revolution in Peru” based in well-heeled Berkeley, California).

Mining is a crucial component of the economic and industrial growth of Peru. Multinationals Xstrata and Newmont have enormous operations in the country, as does the Peruvian industrial concern Buenaventura. Newmont is considering an investment of nearly five billion USD in a copper and gold mining project. But as the investment grows and the industry grows, the tension grows with it. Whether or not the institutions of Peruvian society are now strong enough to contain these tensions and channel them constructively into political activity is yet to be see. It will not be easy.

Of course, Peru is not Bolivia, and vice versa. Bolivia never experienced anything like the level of violence and brutality of the Sendero Luminoso campaign in Peru, and Peru has not experienced the level of political instability that has characterized Bolivia’s history. Peru’s capital, Lima, was the City of Kings, and the center of Spanish administration in the New World. In contrast, even though Potosí was the source of legendary wealth, and once the largest city in the Western Hemisphere because of the silver mining, it was always on the periphery politically. Thus in Spanish America, Peru was related to Bolivia as center to periphery.

Nevertheless, there is something to be learned, and learning here is the crucial term. The resource extraction industries have made the same egregious mistakes with such predictable regularity, and resulting in the same predictable regularity of popular action in opposition, that I suspect that all parties to this wearisome political cycle are guilty of a near total absence of creative thinking on the problem. In circumstances like this, it can honestly be said that we need a revolution — but a revolution in the way of doing business, including the ordinary business of life.

Something needs to be done about the shallow industrial base of those places in the world where the global economy has a footprint of a single point. Local capital and local expertise need to join local labor, or the effort is manifestly unsustainable.

Local communities need to adjust their expectations and their way of life just as much as businesses need to adjust their way of doing business. Even if the way of life has not changed in thousands of years, it is changing now, and whether it is minerals or tourists or something else, the old ways are being crowded out as industrial-technological civilization continues its relentless expansion. Modernization isn’t just a good idea, it is the only way the these traditional communities will survive — admittedly, at some cost to tradition, but when the alternative is annihilation and extinction, change would seem to be preferable.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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