A long-simmering dispute involving indigenous communities, illegal mining, and the Malku Khota mining project in the Andean Potosí region has erupted into kidnapping and property destruction.
News media reports say up to 10 persons working for a subsidiary of Canadian junior, South American Silver, are being held hostage by Bolivian indigenous community members in the Andean Potosí zone.
On June 28, mining engineers Fernando Fernandez and Agustin Cardenas, employees of Bolivian South American Silver subsidiary, Compañia Minera Malku Khota (CMMK), were seized by residents of Malku Khota, a town 217 miles south of La Paz, Bolivia's Minister of Mining and Metallurgy, Mario Virreira, said Tuesday.
"They will be punished for kidnapping, laws are very clear in our country, there can be very drastic sanctions and they will be punished," he told official state news agency, Agencia Boliviana de Información.
La Razón Digital reported three other technicians employed by a private contractor working for Malku Khota were kidnapped Monday afternoon along with 15 other employees who were released Monday because they were Obejería community members.
El País reported a group of between 70 and 100 community members who oppose the mining project attacked a second camp of Malku Khota Monday night where they destroyed all equipment and kidnapped 18. The governor of Potosí, Félix González, said he is unable to confirm El Pais' story.
Interior Minister Carlos Romero told Cadena A Television that the leader the captors want released is Cancio Rojas, "accused of kidnapping, torture and other offenses." Spanish news agency EFE reported the governor of Potosí region said the Potosí indigenous took the hostages to demand the government free their leader, Cancio Rojas. The kidnappers also commanded the government reject the Malku Khota project.
One faction of the indigenous people living in the area has been trying to force out Minera Malku Khota whose operations the illegal miners see as an obstacle to their own gold mining efforts, according to reports by EFE.
Virreira claimed that he found among the community members a guidance document entitled, "Protecting Your Community Against Mining Companies and Other Extractive Industries." The mining minister asked Bolivia's attorney general to lead a thorough investigation on the origin and the authors of the document.
As of early Wednesday morning, South American Silver had not posted a comment regarding the kidnapping on its English language website. However, in a June 15 news release, South American Silver said, "Officials from the Bolivian Ministry of Mines recently met with the local indigenous communities near the Malku Khota project and confirmed that a small group of people carrying out illegal artisanal mining on exploration concessions owned by South American Silver have been encouraging confrontations between communities and attempting to interfere with work on the projects."
"Groups associated with this illegal artisanal mining activity have joined with activists from outside the local community and have recently held protests in La Paz and are now protesting near the project site," South American Silver observed.
Greg Johnson, CEO of South American Silver, said, "We have been working hard for years to build the trust and support of local indigenous communities, and we're proud of the fact that the vast majority recognize the social and economic benefits this project will bring to their families and their communities."
"These protests by outside activists and groups associated with illegal artisanal mining are acting against the state wishes and best interests of the local indigenous communities," he asserted. "In addition to the local communities, the provincial government of Potosí and the national government of Bolivia have sown their consistent support for this project and to private investment generally in the country's mining sector, the second most important economic driver after oil and gas."
South American Silver says its Malku Khota project is "one of the world's largest silver-indium-gallium resources." A Preliminary Economic Assessment says Malku Khota has the potential to mine more than 13.2 million ounces of silver, 80 tonnes of indium and 15 tonnes of gallium annually for the first five years of production.
With an estimated 15-year mine life, the operation would also produce several million pounds of by-product lead, copper and zinc, according to the PEA.