Bolivia Table of Contents
Gold prospecting in the country's rivers and mines was brisk in the late 1980s. Because of Bolivia's vast territory and the high value of gold, contraband gold accounted for approximately 80 percent of exports. Official gold exports were approximately five tons in 1988, up sharply from less than one ton in 1985. In order to capture gold as a reserve for the Central Bank, in 1988 the government offered a 5 percent bonus over the international price of gold on local sales to the Central Bank. Gold was mined almost exclusively by over 300 cooperatives throughout the country, along with about 10,000 prospectors. A large percentage of the cooperatives worked in Tipuani, Guanay, Mapiri, Huayti, and Teoponte in a 21,000-hectare region set aside for gold digging and located 120 kilometers north of La Paz. Mining cooperatives in the late 1980s had requested an additional 53,000 hectares from the government for gold prospecting. Others panned for their fortunes in remote villages like Araras along the Brazilian border in Beni. Small-scale operations were very traditional and wasteful. Analysts predicted that more commercial production, such as the dredging of alluvial deposits, would maximize gold output. A few medium-sized mining operations, as well as the Armed Forces National Development Corporation (Corporación de las Fuerzas Armadas para el Desarrollo Nacional--Cofadena) became involved in the gold rush in the 1980s. Government policy favored augmenting gold reserves as a means of leveraging more external finance for development projects.
The government's mineral policy also gave a high priority to exploiting the lithium and potassium deposits located in the brines of the southern Altiplano's Uyuni saltpan, estimated to be the largest of their kind in the world. The United States Geological Survey, the Bolivian Geological Survey (Servicio Geológico de Bolivia), and others discovered large reserves of lithium in 1976. By 1985 Bolivia's National Congress had made lithium extraction a national priority and created the Industrial Complex of the of Uyuni Saltpan (Complejo Industrial de los Recursos Evaporíticos del Salar de Uyuni) to explore, exploit, and market lithium. Because the extraction of lithium is an expensive, technically complex process, the government sought bids for some foreign investment in lithium in the late 1980s. In addition to an estimated 5.5 million tons of lithium reserves, Bolivia also had approximately 110 million tons of potassium, 3.2 tons of boron, and an unknown amount of magnesium associated with lithium.
After years of planning, the Mutún iron mine was scheduled to open its first of two plants in 1989. The Mutún mine, the sole responsibility of the Mining Company of the Oriente, was expected to yield 592,000 tons of iron in its first five years of operation. Mutún was also expected to produce manganese. The prospects for the steel industry, which was controlled by Bolivian Iron and Steel (Unidad Promotora de La Siderurgia Boliviana, formerly known as Siderúrgica Boliviana), however, were bleak. After more than a decade of planning a national steel plant, Bolivia was still unable to obtain financing for such a project, especially given international overcapacity in steel. The possibility of a national steel plant appeared unlikely at the end of the 1980s.
Data as of December 1989