Two weeks ago the precious metals space was closely following the fate of Sumitomo's San Cristobal mine, where a long strike had paralyzed work at the world's third largest producer of silver and sixth-largest producer of zinc. While the strike was eventually resolved with concession to the domestic workers, a far more troubling report from Bolivian daily La-Razon states that Bolivia's president Evo Morales is now planning on expropriating zinc, silver and tin mines sold off by previous governments. Bloomberg reports that "Morales will announce a decree May 1 to “dismantle the privatization model,” said Nicolas Fernandez, a spokesman for state mining company Corp. Minera de Bolivia, known as Comibol. "The government is recovering all the privatized companies,” Fernandez said today in a telephone interview from La Paz. “When the decision is taken, Comibol will be ready to manage these mines.”" Among the contracts to be affected are those with Glencore International AG, Pan American Silver Corp., and most importantly, Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp., which is operator of the San Bartolome mine: the world's largest pure silver mine. Notably San Bartolome and Sumitomo's San Cristobal "account for about 83% of the nearly 1.1M tons of fine silver Bolivia produced in 2009, according to Mining Ministry data" according to The Gold Report. If indeed this news is proven true, and we will know for sure in 16 days, looks for the price of silver to spike considering about 1.33 million kilograms of silver was produced in Bolivia 2009, according to the U.S. Geological Survey: an amount which will likely fall off a cliff following the utter chaos that is unexpected nationalization.
Bloomberg's report on this important development confirms that the potentially affected producers seem to be in a state of denial about this absurdly irrational development:
“Our property title is not subject to expropriation by the government,” Coeur spokesman Tony Ebersole said in e-mailed comments to questions.
Glencore spokesman Simon Buerk declined to comment and Pan American spokeswoman Kettina Cordero didn’t return telephone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Bolivia produced 430,879 metric tons of zinc, 84,537 tons of lead, 19,581 tons of tin and 1.33 million kilograms of silver in 2009, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Nationalizing private industries is nothing new for the embattled Morales:
The government of then President Hugo Banzer sold off mining assets such as the Vinto tin smelter in 1999 in a drive to shed money-losing state companies and attract private investment. Morales seized the smelter from Glencore in 2007.
Morales took over gas fields and refineries on May 1, 2006 in a bid to increase state control over Bolivia’s natural resources. Private investment in the industry plunged 69 percent to $271 million in 2009 from $865 million a decade earlier, according to state energy company YPF Bolivianos.
With the political situation in Bolivia deteriorating (read the following update from La Razon on the strikes and blockade gripping La Paz) it is increasingly probably that the country's president will take irrational steps in order to safeguard his image, and supposedly to fill his coffers.
Full report from La-Razon here.