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For Unemployed Tin Workers of Bolivia, Lure of Tropics Brings Only More Misery

November 22, 1987|PETER McFARREN | Associated Press

RURRENABAQUE, Bolivia — Visions of a new life have drawn thousands of laid-off tin miners to the tropics, only to find a future that is often bleaker than the underground where they spent their youth and lost their health.

They struggle to survive in a sweltering, mosquito-infested jungle radically different from the chilly, dry highlands where they and their ancestors lived for centuries. And they complain of being abandoned by the government, which fired most of them.

"I've given the best of my life to the mines since I was 19, and what has it all been worth?" said Luis Lugarini Balcazar, 38, who is of Aymara Indian descent.

He worked in the state-run Caracoles mine for 18 years, until he was laid off in June, 1986. He was among 21,000 of 27,500 state-employed tin miners who were fired when slumping tin prices and declining yields forced the debt-ridden government to shut down 14 of its 21 mines.

Industry Crisis

An additional 5,000 privately employed miners also lost their jobs in the industry-wide crisis.

The layoffs prompted a migration to the cities and to the largely untamed lowlands, where the government was providing free land to settlers.

With the equivalent of $1,200 in severance pay from Comibol, the state mining company, Lugarini Balcazar, his wife and their six children boarded an open truck with their few belongings. They traveled over bumpy dirt roads for three days to the tropical village of Yucumo, about 150 miles north of La Paz, the capital city.

Yucumo has no electricity, running water or health facilities. According to the ex-miners, malaria, yellow fever and other infections and parasites are rampant.

Hard Life

Balcazar and 86 other miners from Caracoles hacked a path to forested lands granted them by the government, where they cleared small plots and cultivated plantains, rice, manioc and other crops.

Life proved too hard for many settlers.

"After four months, my family left for La Paz because they could no longer stand the mosquito bites and intense heat," Balcazar said.

His wife and children now live on a monthly welfare check equivalent to $40, plus whatever they can earn in the city and the little money he can send them now and then, he said.

Afflicted With Silicosis

He lives alone in the family's windowless, thatch-roofed hut. He walks 15 minutes to fetch water and two hours to reach Yucumo and the nearest road.

During his years in the mine he contracted silicosis from inhaling mineral dust. The disease often leads to tuberculosis and contributes to a life-expectancy of 45 years among Bolivian tin miners.

Although he should receive regular medical attention, he doesn't because the nearest doctor is 60 miles away.

"Besides, I cannot afford a doctor since everything I received from Comibol has been spent in moving, basic tools and food," he said. "I'm willing to a make a go of it here in the tropics, but what I need now are some small loans to buy equipment and technical assistance."

The government's social emergency fund, using $44 million from U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, the United Nations and the Inter-American Development Bank, is providing temporary jobs for about 8,000 ex-miners and other unemployed workers to build and repair roads, dig sewers and plant trees.

Nonetheless, the jobless rate remains at 18%, according to government statistics, and 25% according to the Roman Catholic Church. Many former miners must get by on their own or with assistance from private charities.

Of the 1,800 families that migrated to the Yucumo area since 1985, only 600 remain.

Harsh Conditions

"To work in this area, with bugs, infections and extreme heat affects their ability to survive even at a subsistence level," said Bruce Harris, field director for Save the Children Federation, a U.S.-based foster-parent program active in the area.

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