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Tin and Related Metals

Bolivia's mines had produced cassiterite, the chief source of tin, since 1861. Although long among the world's leading tin producers and exporters, the industry faced numerous and complicated structural problems by the early 1980s: the highestcost underground mines and smelters in the world; inaccessibility of the ores because of high altitudes and poor infrastructure; narrow, deep veins found in hard rock; complex tin ores that had to be specially processed to extract tin, antimony, lead, and other ores; depletion of high-grade ores; almost continual labor unrest; deplorable conditions for miners; extensive mineral theft or juqueo; poor macroeconomic conditions; lack of foreign exchange for needed imports; unclear mining policies; few export incentives; and decreasing international demand for tin. Between 1978 and 1985, Bolivia fell from the second to the fifth position among tin producers.

In the late 1980s, however, tin still accounted for a third of all Bolivian mineral exports because of the strong performance by the medium and small mining sectors. The largest tin-mining company in the private sector was Estalsa Boliviana, which dredged alluvial tin deposits in the Antequera River in northeastern Potosí Department. The Mining Company of Oruro operated the country's richest tin mine at Huanuni. The country's tin reserves in 1988 were estimated at 453,700 tons, of which 250,000 tons were found in medium-sized mines, 143,700 tons in Comibol mines, and 60,000 tons in small mines. In the late 1980s, tin was exported mainly in concentrates for refining abroad. Eighty percent of all exports went to the European Economic Community and the United States, with the balance going to various Latin American countries and Czechoslovakia.

Bolivia was a founding member of the International Tin Council (ITC), a body of twenty-two consumer and producer countries that since 1930 had attempted to regulate tin markets through buffer stocks. Bolivia, however, did not sign the ITC's International Tin Agreements in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1983 Bolivia joined the newly formed Association of Tin Producing Countries, which attempted--unsuccessfully--to control tin prices through a cartel approach to commodity regulation. After a period of decline, tin prices rebounded in the late 1980s.

Government policies since the early 1970s had sought to expand the percentage of metallic or refined tin exports that offered greater returns. As a result, smelting increased during the 1970s, but in the 1980s the excessive costs of the nation's highly underutilized smelting operations contributed to the decision to restructure Comibol.

Silver, zinc, lead, bismuth, and other minerals were all found with Bolivia's large tin reserves and, like tin, were considered strategic minerals. Because of the common mixture of ores, tin mining frequently encompassed the mining of other minerals as well. With the collapse of tin, the government was increasingly interested in exploiting its large reserves of other minerals, particularly silver and zinc. Three centuries after being the world's largest producer of silver, Bolivia still produced 225 tons of silver in 1988, as compared with about 140 tons in 1987 (see table 8, Appendix). Zinc reserves were large, 530,000 tons, and the expansion of zinc production enjoyed growing government support. Zinc output also rose in the late 1980s from roughly 39,000 tons in 1987 to over 53,000 tons in 1988, compared with 47,000 tons in 1975. Nearly all zinc was exported. In 1987 the government declared the construction of a new zinc refinery in Potosí a national priority. Although the authorities considered lead a minor metal, production increased from 9,000 tons in 1987 to 11,000 tons in 1988. Bismuth reserves were estimated at 4,100 tons, and production in 1987 reached two-thirds of a ton entirely by small miners. Bolivia, the site of the International Bismuth Institute, was once the sole producer of bismuth in the world.

The lead and silver Karachipampa facility in Potosí was the nation's largest smelter. Completed in 1984, Karachipampa employed Soviet technology but was constructed by a Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) company. The smelter's gross capacity was an enormous 51,000 tons a year. Widely criticized for its overcapacity, the plant was not scheduled to open until 1992 at the earliest because of insufficient ore.

Bolivia mined about a fifth of the world's antimony in the late 1980s and was the leading producer among market economies. Private companies were responsible for all antimony production. The largest output came from the United Mining Company (Empresa Minera Unificada), which controlled the two largest antimony mines, located at Chilcobija and Caracota, both in Potosí Department. Medium and small miners generated an average of 9,500 tons of antimony a year in the mid-to late-1980s, all of which was exported. Antimony, a strategic mineral used in flameproofing compounds and semiconductors, was exported in concentrates, trioxides, and alloys to all regions of the world, with most sales going to Britain and Brazil. Antimony reserves in 1988 stood at 350,000 tons.

Bolivia was also the leading producer of tungsten among market economies. But the dramatic decline in tungsten prices in the 1980s severely hurt production, despite the fact that reserves stood at 60,000 tons. Medium and small producers accounted for over 80 percent of the country's tungsten production in the late 1980s. The International Mining Company's Chojilla mine was the source of most tungsten output. Tungsten production sank from 2,300 tons in 1984 to barely more than 800 tons in 1987 because of falling international prices. Tungsten was sold to West European, East European, and Latin American countries, as well as to the United States.

Data as of December 1989

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