Thu. Dec 2nd, 2021

Originally published on

By Timo Kollbrunner, Public Eye
November 2020
Français Deutsch

Fatal accidents, underage workers, environmental destruction: in the Porco mine run by Glencore in the Bolivian highlands, cooperatives mine zinc, lead and silver in inhumane conditions. Glencore turns a blind eye – while purchasing a large portion of the ore produced by the cooperatives.

It is a story of organised irresponsibility that demonstrates how important it is for the Responsible Business Initiative to be adopted.

It’s seven o’clock in the morning. We’re standing at a roundabout in the village of Porco on the Bolivian Plateau and we stand out. Hundreds of mine workers are shuffling past us wearing tracksuit trousers and helmets and peering at us with sleepy eyes. We – Bolivian journalist Jorge Quispe and photographer Christian Lombardi and I – are waiting for Roberto, although that is not his actual name. He wants to take us to the Porco mine, where zinc, silver and lead have been mined here for 700 years – it is the oldest mine in Bolivia.

The mine is run by Sociedad Minera Illapa S.A. – a 100% subsidiary of Swiss company Glencore.

In 2013, Illapa signed a 15-year association agreement with the state firm Corporación Minera de Bolivia (Comibol). The company operates on a three-shift basis, using some 400 workers to mine with heavy machinery. According to the contract, “all operational aspects” come under the “exclusive, comprehensive and full responsibility” of the Glencore subsidiary.

Mine workers on the way to work: by tractor…

Yet the majority of men and teenagers who are making their way to the mine in front of us do not work for Illapa. They work for one of two large cooperatives. Over 3,000 mine workers work for the Cooperativa Minera Porco Limitada and a good 1,500 work for Cooperative Huayana Porco. When mechanical mining is no longer profitable for the Glencore subsidiary, the cooperatives come into play and pick up the scraps – working using basic methods and at great risk.

…by truck or on foot…

Roberto, who has now turned up at the roundabout, wants to show us what that means in practice. He leads us to a truck where a few mine workers are already waiting. We climb into the back. When we get to Illapa’s checkpoint, Roberto asks my colleague Jorge to duck briefly. He is the only one of us who isn’t wearing a helmet, which is seemingly the only thing that matters when it comes to passing the ‘security check’ without a problem.

…all pass under the archway of Illapa, Glencore’s subsidiary

We drive further, passing under an ostentatious archway with the wording ‘Illapa S.A.’ and past the company’s processing plant, up the hill to the Juan Carlos tunnel, 4219 metres above sea.

While the miners lay their overalls, which are still damp from the previous day, out to dry and start chewing coca leaves for strength, Roberto gives us a brief introduction into life at the cooperative.

He is one of some 200 ‘socios’ (foremen) at the Huayana Porco cooperative. He supervises eight people. The mine cooperatives are not really organised as cooperatives, but rather as an association of small businesses. These provide workers at their own financial risk, who then slog away for a set daily wage or a share of the mine’s revenues. Many of them work without a contract and nearly all without any health or accident insurance.

Traces of silver, zinc and lead: a tonne of ore is worth about USD 300.

They have to provide their own Personal Protective Equipment – so many wear helmets made from very cheap plastic and barely any wear masks that effectively protect them from the dust. If a worker is injured in the mine then the cooperative provides financial support for the first aid treatment, but the worker has to figure it out for himself after that.

If a miner dies, his family receives a set sum of USD 3,000.

With one eye on the workers who are loading the truck with ore, Roberto explains in a casual tone that this is stipulated by cooperative regulations. Once loaded, the truck is driven down the hill to Illapa’s processing plant. The Huayana Porco cooperative sells most of its ore to Glencore’s subsidiary, says Roberto; a delivery is only offered to a competing firm in Potosí every now and again.

Child labour as a matter of course

I speak to the youngest looking of Roberto’s workers. Juan, as we’ll call him, tells me that he first came here a year ago, to work at the mine alongside his father during the school holidays. He is 15 years old. He tells us that the work is hard, but that it’s ok – he wants to use the money he earns here to buy new clothes.

Bolivian law allows for young people to take up paid employment from the age of 14. However, certain activities are not permitted from such a young age – the law expressly stipulates that this includes mining. Nevertheless, it seems that everyone here in Porco tolerates underage workers at the mine. In the village of Porco, one encounters dozens of seemingly underage workers in the streets. The mayor Fredy Lugo will later lament to us that many boys prefer to work at the mine than finish school.

Not even Fedecomin, the federation of the mine cooperatives at Potosí, really tries to deny the problem. Or at least not for long. The manager who we speak to in their office initially asserts with utter conviction that “it is a lie that cooperatives employ underage workers”. When we tell him about our observations and meetings in Porco, he swiftly changes tack, admitting that “the problem does exist”.

Back to the mountain. Once his employees have gone off to work, Roberto takes us into the tunnel. With light from our head torches, we walk behind him into the narrow tunnel; we have to duck our heads repeatedly. When we encounter a rumbling small tractor that is carrying ore to the surface, we stand against the wall so that it can pass.

Into the darkness: the entrance to ‘Juan Carlos’ at the Porco mine.

As we go further into the tunnel, it becomes stuffier and hotter.

In some places, deep holes go off the tunnel, without any security. They are too deep for us to be able to see the bottom with our head torches.

These are the shafts that Illapa left behind. Finally, we come to the place where his workers are mining – by this point we’re 1,200 metres inside the mine. We can hear banging noises coming from a deep hole. Roberto tells us that it comes from people working 40 metres below us, but he doesn’t want to take us there because “it would be too dangerous”.

Roberto doesn’t need to fear legal consequences in the event that one of his workers has an accident: there is nearly never a criminal investigation following an accident. If the cooperatives and surviving relatives of the victim of an accident have reached a settlement, “then we don’t get involved”, a gruff policeman at the station in Porco later tells us. “We’re not even aware of many of the accidents”.

When we tell the policeman about the three mine workers from the Porco Limitada cooperative who suffocated at the Porco Mine a few days ago, he says that the accident was clearly their own fault. The relatives had retrieved the corpses from the site of the accident themselves. No one had called for an autopsy and when an attempt had been made to speak to the only survivor of the accident, he had already been discharged from the hospital. And with that, the case was closed.

Many of the drivers are young: you need to be agile in these narrow tunnels.

Huge holes are visible from some parts of the tunnel – shafts that were left behind by Illapa, which had used heavy machinery to mine here.

At 4,219 metres above sea level the ore is finally brought out of the mine and…

…and finally loaded onto trucks, which generally bring it to Glencore facilities further down the mountain.

The day after visiting the mine, we meet 28-year-old Eliceo Mamani Condori in Potosí. He receives us at the premises of an organisation that supports physically disabled persons. He sits in a battered wheelchair and wears tracksuit trousers with a Cooperativa Minera Porco Limitada logo embroidered on them. He worked for the cooperative until that day in August 2014.

He’d signed up to work at the mine as a 17-year-old and shortly afterwards he was widely solicited – less for his work in the tunnels, but more because of his athleticism and fantastic left foot: alongside drinking contests, football tournaments are the most popular pastime of mine workers. Treasured players can earn good extra cash and sometimes get preferential treatment at the mine.

Eliceo Mamani Condori fell 45 metres down a hole in the Porco mine six years ago – and has been paralysed ever since.

This was the case for Eliceo Mamani. His ‘socio’ had given him authorisation to mine his own ore; they planned to split whatever he made. He worked for months to get access to a site where he thought he would find mineral deposits.

To get to ‘his’ section, which went straight across from the huge shaft left behind by Illapa, he had to climb up the wooden post that the firm had used to shore up the tunnel. When he had nearly reached his intermediate shelf, one of the beams collapsed. It might have been loosened by the reverberations from explosions. Eliceo Mamani can also imagine that other mine workers who were after his ore may have left a trap for him. He fell 45 metres down the hole.

Paralysed by the rescue?

Eliceo’s colleagues bound his lower body to a ladder and tried to use their collective strength to pull him up by rope. The ladder got caught against the wall of the shaft, he got wedged in and the pain briefly brought him to, before he fell unconscious again. He believes that his backbone only broke during the rescue. Eliceo spent two weeks in a coma and when he regained consciousness, the first thing he asked was whether his injuries were so serious that he’d have to rearrange his football game. “When the nurse told me I’d never be able to walk again, I understood – and I cried.”

His wife Licet prefers not to think back to the moment when her husband came home from hospital and she had to look after both him and their newly born daughter, Maite. All she says is that “it was like having to look after two babies”.

Today, Eliceo is employed by the municipality of Potosí as doorman at a sports facility; he earns a fifth of what he’d previously earnt at the mine. He now places his hope in the cooperative where he used to work. He is planning to send them a letter asking for them to at least give a job to one of his relatives, seeing as he himself can no longer work.

Twenty fatalities per year

Yet how dangerous is this work really? Is it possible to quantify the severity and frequency of accidents at the Porco mine? As there are no reliable statistics, the hospital is the best place to answer these questions.

Doctor Reyna Paucara Canaza frequently treats seriously injured young mine workers at the healthcare centre in Porco.

Doctor Reyna Paucara Canaza has worked here since 2016, and the figures she shares get under your skin.

She says that every day she treats mine workers with moderately severe to severe injuries.

The most common are brain injuries and back injuries caused by falling stone slabs or falls. In the past four years of her work as a doctor, there have been on average 20 fatalities per year at the mine. The latest time when commodities prices skyrocketed and the mine sought more workers than normal – in 2017 – there was a fatality nearly every week. She frequently treats 15 and 16-year olds and sometimes even younger patients.

The youngest injured mine worker she could remember was 11 years old.

In the cases of the most severe injuries, the doctors are not able to provide any more than first aid using the basic facilities at the healthcare centre in Porco. In such cases, the injured are transferred to Potosí. Unfortunately they also lack equipment and personnel for rescues inside the mine. Injured workers are usually rescued by their colleagues and brought to the hospital in any truck available, and yes, the doctor adds, this can of course lead to additional injuries.

The company Illapa in Porco does run two healthcare centres – which are each equipped with an ambulance. The problem is that this doesn’t help cooperative workers at all. According to an agreement with the state health insurance, “Illapa is not permitted to provide services to third parties”, Glencore writes in response to an enquiry.

A young woman sitting at her desk.

Doctor Reyna Paucara Canaza frequently treats seriously injured young mine workers at the healthcare centre in Porco.

The poisoned river

A reddish trickle flows through boulders, green foam next to it.
Two traditionally clothed Bolivian women.

Today, crop yields are not even half what they were 20 years ago, say Helena Cordoba (left) and Damiana Apaza from Churcuita.

Before we leave, we want to follow up on one additional point that many women and men we’ve spoken to in recent days have complained about: pollution of the drinking water below the mine.

When we make another visit to the mayor Fredy Lugo who we already spoke to, he unexpectedly gestures through his office window to two women in traditional dress standing in the village square. “Go and speak to them” he says “they can tell you what it’s like living below the mine”.

Today, crop yields are not even half what they were 20 years ago, say Helena Cordoba (left) and Damiana Apaza from Churcuita.

We go round and speak to the two women. We’re met with a sudden rant. They are from the village of Churcuita, located several hundred metres below the mine concession. Water from the river, which was previously an excellent source of drinking water, is no longer drinkable, the 57-year-old Damiana Apaza says. She still cultivates fava beans, potatoes, corn and vegetables, but the yields are less than half what they were 20 years ago. The milk and meat from their lamas and goats are barely enjoyable anymore, the trout that used to be in the stream has long disappeared.

“You can’t live in Churcuita anymore” she says.

We want to have a look at a village affected by the mining activity for ourselves. Together with environment engineer Marcela Rojas Aroni we get onto a minibus.

Marcela Rojas has been working for the municipality of Porco for a good three years – and during this time she has carried out two detailed studies of the environmental impacts of the mining activities and the quality of the water in the municipality below the mine.

We get off at the village of Sora Molino. Marcela Rojas leads us to the former drinking source of the village: the Agua Castilla river. Now in the dry period it is more a trickle, with a reddish glimmer and foam bubbles.

The riverbed of the ‘Agua Castilla’ in Porco.

50 times the permitted maximum

In September last year, at six in the morning Marcela Rojas took samples from the river, which had always been the inhabitants’ most important source of drinking water, and sent them to a laboratory to be analysed. The results were highly concerning. The permitted maximum of zinc traces in drinking water in both Bolivia and Switzerland is 5 milligrams per litre. The water in Sora Molina had 30.6 milligrams per litre – six times the permitted concentration of the metal, which at high levels damages not only plants but human organs. Iron, which is particularly damaging to the liver, was found in a concentration of 8.51 milligrams per litre – over 28 times the permitted maximum of 0.3 milligrams in Bolivia. Manganese, which in high concentrations impacts on cognitive and motor functioning, was present in Sora Molino to a concentration of 5.29 milligrams per litre – over 50 times the Bolivian permitted maximum of 0.1 milligram and over 100 times the permitted maximum in Switzerland.

Last January, Marcela Rojas submitted her report to the department government in Potosí. What has happened since then? “That is what’s frustrating” she says. Only the departmental authorities have the power to impose sanctions and order a plant to shut down for a period, until it is restored. Yet that has never happened.

Once, twice a year someone from the “secretariat of Mother Earth”, the environment ministry, accompanies her on an inspection, and then … nothing happens.

Together with the environmental engineer, we make our way to the few houses in the village that are not dilapidated and are still covered by intact thatched roofs. On a hillside overlooking the village, the remnants of low walls can be seen, witnesses to the terraces that food was once cultivated on. Now nothing apart from thickets grow there. In front of a yard, delicate plants are growing on a small field on which fava beans should one day grow. Lama coats are lying out to dry on a windowsill, a dog is barking somewhere, it’s only people that we don’t see.

We are just about to leave when we see a pickup truck in the distance, driving in our direction. On the back it is carrying a group of men and women dressed in black. They are relatives of 42-year-old Juana Choque, who introduces herself as the “widow of Xenon Cruz”. Her husband died exactly a month ago, aged 46. The grieving family came here to pay tribute to him. Juana Choque gestures to a solitary cross, stuck in the ground between two bushes. “He’s buried here, and this is where I’ll be buried”.

A dry riverbed.

The riverbed of the ‘Agua Castilla’ in Porco.

An old, broken bed frame in the middle of the ruins of what used to be a house.

Most families moved away a long time ago because of the poisoned water.

Dead tree trunk in front of the ruins of a house.

Xenon Cruz worked in the mine, like nearly all healthy men here. He was employed by the company Illapa – until in 2007 when he fell under a piece of machinery and was severely injured. He never fully recovered his health. He only got a small pension from the company, less than a third of his original wage. Therefore, despite his injuries he went back to work for the management of one of the cooperatives – until he died of health complications a month ago.

Juana Choque told us that she didn’t know how she would now feed her five children and herself. For it’s no longer possible to live here in Sora Molina, where she came 25 years ago, “when everything was still green”.

The water from the river is poisoned – “when our lamas drink from it, it’s the end of them”.

This comes up repeatedly. If it doesn’t rain a lot, everything that is planted dies. The potatoes from the last harvest were hard and smaller than a thumb, says Juana Choque. By now she no longer manages to hold back her tears. “We’ve simply been forgotten”.

What does Glencore say?

Miners in front of an inscription "Bienvenidos Mina Porco", "Welcome to the Porco Mine"

Naturally, this begs the question: who is responsible for the poisoned water in the municipality below the Porco mine? The company Illapa, that mines using machinery and a large quantity of water? Or the poorly regulated cooperatives? In contrast to the cooperatives, Glencore’s subsidiary has a valid environmental licence, says the environmental engineer Marcela Rojas.

However, when Illapa’s documents were audited in March, several problems were identified.

Zinc and lead deposits were not properly covered and some channels which serve to prevent traces from entering the river were missing. In the hamlet Playa Verde, which is located beneath one of the retention tanks operated by Illapa, the authorities tested the water quality following complaints from inhabitants. They found traces of lead, iron and zinc over the permitted maximum levels. And finally the so-called acid mine drainage was insufficiently retained.

When requested, Anna Krutikov from Glencore confirmed the March 2020 audit and wrote that the official inspection report “found no environmental breaches” and that the recommendations for the management of acid rock drainage “have been addressed”. In relation to the water quality she wrote that they were engaging with the municipal authorities “to understand their concerns”.

“Please do not come to work while under the influence of drugs” requests Glencore’s subsidiary at the entrance to the mine…

What is this due diligence worth?

We would have liked to speak to the company’s local management to raise our concerns. Yet a prospective meeting never took place and when we tried our luck at the headquarters in La Paz, on the first day we were told that unfortunately all managers are in meetings. On the second day we were told that unfortunately all managers were working from home and are not reachable. The questions that we submitted in written form were ultimately answered from the headquarters in Zug.

With regard to the agreements with the cooperatives, Glencore’s sustainability head Anna Krutikov, writes to us that Illapa “has no contracts or agreements with the cooperatives”. Once the company “has completed its operations in particular parts of the concession and has no further plans to mine, it must inform Comibol, who may or may not reassign these areas to the cooperatives. The company is therefore at least indirectly involved in deciding where the cooperatives are allowed to work. Numerous ‘socios’ of the cooperatives complain to us that Illapa only leave them ‘la basura’ (the rubbish).

At Fedecomin, the mine cooperatives’ federation, we are told that alongside the official contracts with Comibol there are direct informal discussions and agreements between Illapa and cooperatives. Yet these are often not written down and do not have “any legal status”.

Glencore does not respond to our question on the proportion of the cooperatives’ ore that Illapa purchases, calling it “commercially sensitive” information. However, it states that the purchasing contracts with the cooperatives “are subject to due diligence on commercial, legal and operational aspects, including (…) safety and risks of child labour, in line with the Glencore Supplier Standards. Among other things, these standards include the expectation that suppliers “have zero tolerance for any form of modern slavery, including […] child labour” and that they provide “a safe and healthy working environment, including appropriate Personal Protective Equipment”.

Looking at the circumstances on the ground in Porco, these statements seem downright absurd. Anyone and everyone who looks around in Porco early in the morning or at the end of the working day will see that most of the mine workers do not have appropriate Personal Protective Equipment and that many of them are clearly underage.

You have to ask yourself: what exactly did a due diligence check if it didn’t pick this up?

In terms of the checks at the entrance to the mine, Glencore writes that people who enter the area are registered, and that one of the checks carried out is the use of Personal Protective Equipment. However, Illap has no authority to “force any requirement on cooperative members”.

For its part, in 2019 Sinchi Wayra, the holding company that owns Illapa S.A., reported to the UN Global Compact that it held a regular dialogue with the cooperatives on “important topics such as Personal Protective Equipment, the use of child labour and environmental damage”.

There were also plans to visit the cooperatives to ensure that “they are complying with our conditions”. We do not know whether these visits have taken place. What you can probably say is that if they have, they obviously had the same effect as the dialogue or the well-formulated sentences in the supplier standards, i.e. not much at all.

…the processed product is brought by lorry to ‘Agua Castilla’ below Porco…

Hurdles in red tap

We would also have liked to ask Comibol some questions: what is it doing to regulate the lawlessness in the cooperatives? What responsibilities does it consider the firm Illapa to have as operator of the mine?

The endeavour to find answers to these and other questions from the Bolivian authorities is probably best described as a hurdles circuit race. Firstly, we try the regional offices in Potosí, who refer us onto the headquarters in La Paz. We go there. Assessing the working conditions among cooperatives is difficult, and improving them is even harder, we are told by the friendly press officer there. The cooperatives are unfortunately beyond the control of the company and the authorities, he adds frankly.

Yet he isn’t able to tell us anything about contracts or responsibilities in relation to the Porco mine. Those who could are all in meetings for the whole day, he says. We should submit our questions in writing.

After I’ve done that, the situation becomes bizarre. After two days of considerations, the press officer tells us that I should address my questions directly to the president of Comibol. I do this, and finally I receive a letter from the president in which he states that he unfortunately has to request a formal motion to ascertain that I am in fact the person who asked the questions. I give up.

…where it is loaded onto freight trains. The railway leads to the Chilean port of Antofagasta.

“You can’t live here anymore”

On its sustainability page, Glencore writes: “We uphold human rights and support the sustainable, long-term development of the local communities in which we operate.” It is unclear what specific sustainability efforts Glencore undertakes in Bolivia – the country is simply not mentioned in the Zug-based company’s latest 97-page sustainability report.

Juana Choque, the widow from Sora Molina, has made her verdict. “The company took all of my husband’s strength and threw him away like a dog” she says, “and because of the poisoned water you can’t live here anymore”.

Sign on the side of the road with a painted worker and inscription.

“Please do not come to work while under the influence of drugs” requests Glencore’s subsidiary at the entrance to the mine…

A truck is driving through a mountain landscape kicking up dust.

…the processed product is brought by lorry to ‘Agua Castilla’ below Porco…

Rusty railway station sign reading "Agua Castilla"

…where it is loaded onto freight trains. The railway leads to the Chilean port of Antofagasta.

Yes to the Responsible Business Initiative

What would change if Switzerland votes yes to the Responsible Business Initiative?

If the Initiative is adopted, Glencore will no longer be able to violate environmental standards and will have to ensure that the mining activities no longer poison the Agua Castilla river, which is important to the region. Otherwise, impacted inhabitants will be able to claim compensation from the headquarters in Baar, in the Swiss canton of Zug. And Glencore must do everything in its power, to ensure that no underage workers graft in mines and that avoidable, often fatal accidents no longer take place.

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