The number of publications on Bolivian mining continues to grow, a clear sign of an increasing interest in a key economic sector of Bolivian development. Manuel Contreras’ book joins contributions by Antonio Mitre, Gustavo Rodríguez, and Ricardo Godoy, to mention just a few. That this new book is the eighth title in a collection called Biblioteca Minera Boliviana is another indication of this growing interest. Contreras’ contribution, however, is a collection of articles rather than a book with unified content.
The book comprises three essays. The first deals with tin mining in the first half of the twentieth century; the second with mining engineering in Bolivia between 1900 and 1954; and the third is a helpful review of tin-mining historiography between 1900 and 1964. Although the quality of all the essays is solid, there are differences among them. The first essay is an overview that relies mostly on secondary sources. The second is part of a doctoral dissertation from Columbia University and contains much more detail and interesting new data on the role of engineers, Bolivian and foreign, and on mining development, focusing on the Patiño mines and the state company, COMIBOL, with abundant new archival sources.
Following those archival sources, the book tends to focus on the Patiño mines and, in general, on the other two very large family mining companies, Aramayo and Hochschild. (Contreras has also previously written on medium-sized mining operations.) Tin mining displaced silver mining in Bolivia at the turn of the century and grew spectacularly thereafter. Instrumental to this growth were Simón I. Patiño’s mine acquisitions, bought from foreign investors and ultimately registered in Delaware as Patiño Mines. In 1924 Patiño bought Llallagua and started his credit deals with the Bolivian government, which, according to Contreras, played an increasing role in defining mining policy after the depression of the 1930s. Through taxes, exchange and hard currency controls, and the regulation of the international tin market, Contreras argues, the government gained influence in the mining industry, while the large, almost oligopolistic mining companies lost power. He also argues that Bolivian mining contributed to national development in larger proportions than previously thought.
Contreras clearly disapproves of the nationalization of Bolivian mines in 1952 and the establishment of COMIBOL because the mineral deposits were poor, large investments were needed to increase production and buy new machinery, and the tin market was unstable (p, 51). “Labor indiscipline was affecting production,” furthermore, and labor costs were excessive (p. 49). Past, it seems, is the time when Bolivian mining development was seen through the key roles of workers and unions, à la Guillermo Lora. Contreras offers a new focus in which, for example, engineers and the engineering profession are crucial. The second essay, subtler and better documented, shows the preference for hiring foreign engineers in Bolivian mines, although Bolivians were also hired and had an increasing role in mining companies, particularly in medium-sized ones. In sum, Contreras’ book is a good contribution with its own focus, preferences, and, of course, ideological viewpoints, to a growing field of research.