Bolivia seeks mining investment

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2015

Rhiannon Garth Jones discovers the latest mining news

Bolivia is a country well known for its mineral reserves. The silver-laced mountain, Cerro Rico, is so integral to the country’s sense of identity that it appears on bank notes. It has the second-largest reserves of natural gas in South America and more than half the world’s reserves of lithium – the element used increasingly in energy storage. 

For the past 500 years, the silver, tin and zinc produced by the country have bankrolled first the Spanish empire and then independent Bolivia. But the collapse of the tin market in the 1980s had a profound impact on the country’s mining industry and few foreign companies remain after some interests were nationalised. Since then, international companies have been reluctant to invest, despite putting money into neighbouring Peru and Chile. 

Co-operative miners in Bolivia have an unusual amount of political influence, largely due to their high membership – around 90% of the 140,000 miners in the country. Recently, some of the co-operatives have protested at the lack of investment in the industry, and this seems to have had an impact. 

Now, the Bolivian Government is signalling its desire for foreign investment, with the Vice President, Alvaro García Linera, publicly stating ‘We need you to work with us [...] There is not going to be a mining industry unless there is concurrent investment between the public and the private sectors’. 

However, other barriers to investment remain. The mining structure has been neglected since the tin market collapse, 30 years ago and there is geological mapping data for only 19% of the country. Additionally, practical difficulties remain – high altitudes, poor infrastructure and complex ores, among others. 

Potash plans proceed

In August 2015, Materials World covered the approval of the York Potash Ltd project to build a mine in North Yorkshire. At the time, we reported that the Campaign for National Parks (CNP) was considering whether it had grounds for a legal challenge against the decision. After seeking legal advice, the CNP has decided against a challenge. Construction of the £1.7bln mine is set to begin early in 2016. 

Rio Tinto rolls out driverless trucks 

Seven-metre high, driverless trucks are being used by Rio Tinto at its Pilbara sites in Australia. Traditionally, drivers of trucks doing the same work faced difficult working conditions in extreme heat, often leading to serious fatigue. The driverless trucks are reported to be improving safety as well as cutting costs and increasing efficiency. It is hoped that new jobs will be created in technological development and data analysis, to replace those lost by using the driverless fleets. Other mining companies have also been testing autonomous vehicles. 

Dam bursts at major Brazilian mine

At least eight people are dead, 21 missing and more than 500 displaced after a dam burst at the Samarco iron ore mine in south east Brazil, which is responsible for around 10% of the country's iron ore exports. The mine is jointly owned by BHP Billiton and Vale, and Chief Executives Andrew Mackenzie and Murilo Ferreira visited the location before apologising for the disaster and announcing that their companies would meet all their obligations to the response effort, while recommitting to the venture. An emergency fund has been set up to help the affected families and communities as quickly as possible.

The dam was built to hold back water and residue from mining operations, including tailings, a mining waste product of metal filings, water and, occasionally, chemicals. It was located near the Gualaxo do Norte river, leading to fears of potential water contamination. The Brazilian Government has told reporters it will will ensure the companies pay for cleanup costs and, if applicable, enforce any fines