The plundering of Bolivian gold
In the north of La Paz, dozens of Chinese companies operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to extract gold. On paper, these companies do not exist, as they hide behind mining cooperatives that receive an income in exchange for maintaining secrecy. Thus, foreigners get rich in Bolivian gold without paying taxes while contaminating the rivers with mercury and other toxic wastes that later reach Madidi Park, one of the planet’s most biodiverse areas.
By Manuel Seoane and Sergio Mendoza
Mining in Mayaya, a community in the northern La Paz municipality of Teoponte, never stops. Or rarely. Thousands of workers work 11-hour shifts in gigantic areas of barren, contaminated, desert-like soil, which makes its way like a disease into the Amazon forest. From here, the Kaka River is poisoned, whose waters, kilometers downstream and other streams, kiss the banks of the Madidi National Park.
Bolivian miners work for Chinese entrepreneurs. An illegal association between national cooperatives and foreign investors (mainly from the Asian giant) have made this devastation a reality with the complicity of the Bolivian State. Gold mining has destroyed nature in these populations, and the impact reaches Madidi, one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Every day, every hour, thousands of liters of water containing mercury and other pollutants stain the rivers that flow into the protected area.
Campamento minero en Manaya, al norte de La Paz. / Manuel Seoane
Ernesto, a miner who works for a cooperative, says that this region is populated by undocumented Chinese foreigners who extract kilos of gold without leaving anything in return for the communities other than destruction. “But Bolivia owes so much money to China. What can you tell them?” he mutters. In 2021, Bolivia owed 10.3% of the external public debt (equivalent to $1.313 billion) to China.
A few kilometers from the center of the dusty village of Mayaya is a desolate landscape: the forest has disappeared and been replaced by hundreds of artificial stone hills stretching as far as the eye can see. On some of them, dump trucks and tractors can be seen in the distance, plowing through the earth.
In one of these camps sits Luigi, an engineer from Santa Cruz who arrived here a month ago to work for a Chinese company. He works amid the orange mud, gray rocks, roaring machines, and metal and plastic debris. Luigi speaks sign language with his bosses, who do not understand Spanish. When he finds out we are doing a report, he asks us: “Do you know if the Chinese pay taxes?
La Joya, one of the nightclubs in Mayaya. / Manuel Seoane
Gold hierarchies and 24 hours of noise
We set out from Maya downstream in a paddle canoe and watched as mining operations stretched miles along the Kaka River. We hit something that looked like a cable from some abandoned dredge on the way. Those river machines are about six meters high by 15 meters long and five meters wide, corroded by rust, and usually inhabited and operated by Chinese nationals. It was too late when we saw it about two meters in front of the bow. The canoe turned to the right, and the water began to rush in. We capsized.
Wet and with long faces, we paddled for a few more hours until it got dark. That’s when we saw a camp of pitmen stationed on the right bank, the lowest link in the mining hierarchy. They live in tents made of logs tied together with tire rubber, lined with blue nylons on which they lay sun-parched palm leaves.
They work the two hours a day that the machines stop, thanks to an agreement with the communities. When the engines are turned off, they run to the pits left by the bulldozers and pull out what they can.
People from Barranquilla extract gold on the banks of the Kaka river, La Paz. / Manuel Seoane
The place where we stop to sleep is called Catea, a community within the municipality of Teoponte, where the gold rush is at one of its highest points. The area where we stayed is in the name of a cooperative, but in reality, who extracts gold without respite and throws a lot of toxic waste into the river is a Chinese company—the cooperative gets between 25% and 40% of the profits without working or putting in capital. The Chinese company gets up to 75% of the value of the gold without paying taxes to the State. The loser is the country and the communities, who receive crumbs while stripped of their natural wealth, as has been the case since colonial times.
These shady arrangements have become a custom among the mining cooperatives. “Exactly, there is tax evasion,” admitted the president of one of the country’s two most crucial gold cooperative federations (Fecoman), Ramiro Balmaceda. “These are internal agreements outside the law,” he said at a public event in La Paz. The leader justified the crimes by some cooperatives’ lack of investment capital. His economic advisor, Ramiro Paredes, assured that the Government is aware of what is happening.
The leader of another of the most critical federations (Ferreco), Eloy Sirpa, also admitted that the income received by the cooperatives that camouflage these companies has to be higher than 25% for “there to be a profit.”
River contamination due to mining in Mayaya.. / Manuel Seoane
Mario Supa, community member of San Miguel del Bala, fishing in Beni, contaminated by mining/ Manuel Seoane
Tracking down these ghost mining companies is an almost impossible task. Their capital is suspected to be linked to other illicit activities, such as drug trafficking. They are not registered in the country, their transactions are made in cash, leaving no traces in the financial system, and their gold is sold on the Bolivian black market to be taken abroad.
Mario Supa, community member of San Miguel del Bala, fishing in Beni, contaminated by mining. / Manuel Seoane
The shell companies are exempt from paying the State up to 37.5% profit tax (IUE), 13% value-added tax (IVA), 3% transaction tax (IT), and up to 7% royalties for the regions where they operate. Behind the façade of a cooperative, the regions only receive a 2.5% royalty, and in the future, the country is expected to receive only 4.8% in taxes. As low as any, this last tax was granted by the Government to the cooperatives because they are its political allies, but in substance, it will also benefit the shell companies.
These benefits are based on “a policy of surrender” of natural resources, said Alfredo Zaconeta, a researcher specializing in mining issues at the Center for Labor and Agrarian Development Studies (CEDLA). With these advantages, “many opt to pass themselves off as cooperatives, others make illegal agreements, and the product comes out as if it were from a cooperative and not from a company.”
The only thing that occurred to us was to ask them for a drink of water, and they quickly raised their warm kettle and filled a metal bottle for us. They did not even accept a coin in exchange and nervously waited for us to leave in our canoe, stationed at the side of their dredge.
Machinery is operating in a mining camp in Mayaya, La Paz. / Manuel Seoane
A teenager in a tent at the Catea mining camp, Mayaya. / Manuel Seoane
Edson, a “pozero” from Catea, washes gold flakes at the bottom of a wooden pan./ Manuel Seoane
Edson weighs two grams of gold on his scale. / Manuel Seoane
Park ranger Marcos Uzquiano. / Manuel Seoane
Local people told us that these foreigners are probably brought from their country of origin to these corners, far from the large urban centers. They are likely to work from sunrise to sunset without leaving their boats, not having the possibility of conversing with anyone, and oblivious to everything that happens around them, unaware even of the country in which they find themselves.
Indigenous people are the new park rangers.
Marcos Uzquiano began his career as a park ranger in Madidi 23 years ago. Now, at 46 years of age and after being transferred to another protected area at the miners’ request, he continues to denounce the disasters caused by this extractive activity, which has the complicity of Luis Arce’s Government. However, he knows that the authority of a park ranger is becoming weaker and weaker. The remaining ones do not even have the support of their bosses, who, ironically, have allied themselves with the miners.
Another Madidi park guard, who prefers anonymity, explained: “In recent years, mining has come down on us. We no longer receive support from SERNAP (National Protected Areas Service) or the Ministry of Environment. Our actions against illegal mining are a salute to the flag and have no effect. SERNAP is an accomplice, and the miners tell us to do whatever we must do because everything is already arranged up there anyway.”
Vehicle with Chinese license plate in Mayaya./ Manuel Seoane
Marcos Uzquiano observes the Beni and Quendeque rivers from his camp. / Manuel Seoane
“In the last few years, mining has come down on us,” says a Madidi park ranger. “We no longer receive support from the National Protected Areas Service or the Ministry of Environment. The actions we take against illegal mining are a salute to the flag. The miners tell us to do whatever because everything is already arranged up there anyway.”
Uzquiano points out mining sites near the Madidi National Park on a map. / Manuel Seoane
SERNAP assured that to date, no mining operations have been authorized in Madidi, but acknowledged that they exist and are being carried out outside the law, with no possibility of stopping them. Various agreements between the Government and the miners, which we consulted for this report, prove the alliance between both actors to enter the protected areas.
With the Government in their favor, there is only one last obstacle for the miners to invade the national park: the indigenous communities. These have become the new park rangers and are, so far, the only ones stopping the destructive advance.
Mario Supa, a 53-year-old Tacana indigenous guide, recalls that a few years ago, Colombian citizens first arrived to mine in the Beni River basin near Madidi Park. But they were driven out by the Lecos, Tacanas, and Mosetenes. Later, the Chinese arrived and were also expelled.
The Uzquiano park ranger at night, on the banks of the Quendeque river. / Manuel Seoane
“The park rangers did nothing. We were the ones who took care of the park. Mining destroys everything you see,” said Mario, pointing to the trees, the forest, and the grass growing everywhere.
As these lines are being written, other indigenous communities within Madidi have risen against gold mining after Luis Arce’s Government opened the way for them to enter the park with an agreement signed at the end of October of this year to regularize their operations within the protected area.
Some indigenous groups have declared themselves guardians of Madidi and other protected areas. Their struggle continues.
*We produced this story with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund of the Pulitzer Center. Some people’s names have been changed to protect their identities.