Bolivian President Unlikely to Crack Down on Mine Seizures


"Evo Morales seems to be turning a blind eye to peasant farmers squatting on string of mining sites."

Dozens of mine seizures by peasant farmers are adding to the woes of Bolivia's dilapidated mining industry, but the leftist government is unlikely to crack down on squatters ahead of a presidential election.

Large, foreign-owned mines remain unaffected for now, but squatters have grabbed a string of smaller sites since President Evo Morales took office in 2006 vowing to strengthen state control over natural resources.

Industry groups and mining leaders say the takeovers could aggravate falling investment. But Morales is unlikely to act in coming months for fear of alienating voters he is counting on to win reelection in a December presidential vote.

Many of the peasant farmers and freelance miners behind the mine seizures are supporters of Morales, an Aymara Indian who is Bolivia's first president of indigenous descent.

"There's no doubt. . .mining investors are wary at the moment because of the mine seizures," said Albino Garcia, vice president of FENCOMIN, an association representing tens of thousands of freelance miners, many of whom work for foreign companies.

Morales, a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has nationalized several energy and mining companies, boosting his popularity among the Andean country's poor, indigenous majority but alarming foreign investors.

Government officials appear reluctant to step in to stop the sometimes-violent mine takeovers, saying foreign mining investors have done little to help the local economy.

"While natural resources have been taken abroad for centuries, the communities remain poor, without water or electricity," mining director Freddy Beltran told Reuters

Peasants have taken over mines because they say mineral resources belong to them, to press companies to employ more people from local communities or to demand compensation for environmental problems.

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