Bolivia's mineral resources: a mirage or a real El Dorado?

Eric Pirard





Eric Pirard
Professor at the University of Liège, Faculty of Applied Sciences
GeMMe - Mineral Georesources

Article published on the GRESEA website ( Research Group for an Alternative Economic Stragegy)

Resources which remain poorly understood

Just like water, fossil fuels, primary forests, and the air which we breathe, mineral resources are a natural resource. Just like water, they are unevenly distributed across the earth's crust and, in contrast with plant resources, cannot be cultivated. “If you can't grow it, you have to mine it” says a popular saying in the mining world to make the activity acceptable to those who consume its fruits, often without even knowing it.

The geological processes which led to the establishment of mineral resources vary greatly and are still often poorly understood. Although we can reasonably predict what type of resources we might find in any given region, there are no other means of actually identifying mineral deposits other than the systematic exploration of the ground by geologists. Geologists rely on analytical techniques which reveal geochemical or geophysical anomalies on the surface or, even better, in the first few hundred metres below ground. With few exceptions, the deep mineral deposits which are mined today all emerge in the first three hundred metres below the earth's crust. Of the known mineral deposits, some were generated by magmatic and tectonic phenomena dating to more than two billion years ago, while others resulted from the concentration of metals linked to climatic conditions in the last few thousand years. By means of example, consider the magmatic region of the Bushveld near Pretoria where more than half of the world's known reserves of platinum (Cawthorn, 1999) can be found. Consider on the other hand, the lateritic soil of a large part of New Caledonia which includes more than 10% of the world's nickel reserves (USGS, 2011).

Very early in the history of humanity, it became apparent that it would be injudicious to attribute the enjoyment of sub-soil resources to the owner of the land, but rather that this privilege should be reserved to those responsible for managing the public good. Thus, all mining codes inspired by the Napoleonic period are based upon licenses for underground exploration and mining combined with a specific taxation aiming at the stimulation of geographical knowledge and the development of highly onerous infrastructures while ensuring important benefits for the country in question. Recently, the majority of modern mining codes have been revised to add explicit clauses concerning environmental responsibility (requirement to take into account the rehabilitation of sites after mining) and benefit to indigenous communities (involvement of local communities, respect for cultural traditions, creation of infrastructures ...) Without wishing to idealise the situation, it has to be recognised that significant progress has been made in southern countries, through, among other things, initiatives such as the EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative).

From the point of view of globalisation, it is unfortunate to say that a country "owns" mineral resources, because a global view of the issue obliges us to reconsider the issue of mineral resource mining to benefit all populations (in the north as well as in the south) and all generations (current as well as future). From this point of view, it is time that we consider an international agency for mineral resources whose mission would be to establish real solidarity around access to resources.

Is Bolivia sitting on a golden throne?

From a strictly geological point of view, Bolivia is a country whose sub-soil contains a very high diversity of mineral deposits. It is crossed by significant structures which are fractured and folded to form the current Andes Cordillera. But the imposing relief which is visible today is only the consequence of relatively recent tectonic movements which started more than 200 million years ago. As for the western part of Bolivia, it is covered with sediments linked to the Amazonian basin, but which have led to the appearance at the Brazilian border of a base of very ancient rocks which remain little explored (Litherland, 1987).

Bolivie 3

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