TUMBLING around Siglo this afternoon has been a frustrating experience. The union offices are shut and a long weekend lies ahead with nothing much to do. This is no tourist spot.
Siglo XX is a tin mining community, lodged in one of the bleaker and higher corners of the Andes. A grey mountain of gravelly waste soars up on one side of the mine and the drab walls and tin roofs of miners houses fill the landscape on the other. It’s a dismal scene. And it’s been raining.
But Saturday is market day and people brighten the muddy streets. Does anyone know where Cristobal Aranibar lives - the general-secretary of the union? Almost every public wall has his name stencilled onto it - ‘Aranibar & Cussi’ was the victorious ticket at the last union election. But no, no-one seems to know where he lives.
A miner in rubber boots says he knows where one of the Cussis lives however, Not the Cussi, not Mario Cussi, but his brother Higon. He has one of the houses just up there on the right.
Rusting corrugated-iron extensions make it difficult to tell where one home ends and the next begins. But eventually I spot the Cussi in question leaning over his balcony talking to a bowler-hatted lady selling blankets in the street below.
‘A journalist, eh? Come in, come in.’ Within a minute I am on his settee in the tiny front room and am having my ears pinned back about Siglo XX - or ‘20th Century’ - one of the largest and most infamous tin mines in the world: terrible working condittions, miners dying with lungs full of silica dust, pitiful wages. It all comes out in an endless stream. And all I really want to know is where his brother lives.
I feel I should tell him why I’m here. A TV programme is looking for a tin miner to be the subject of a film and, since it is the union that has to nominate candidates, I need to find his brother Mario.
Two days later I sit apprehensively in the union offices waiting for the nominees to show up and the first person to put his head round the door is Higon. How did he get to the top of the queue? Favouritism, pushiness, luck. I’m not sure that it matters. I could do a lot worse than Higon. A small wiry man in a Zapata moustache, 33 years old, he’s talkative and friendly with an engaging sense of humour. Even after interviewing all the others he’s still the number one choice..
His house is two tiny rooms rented from the mine, scrupulously clean butjam-packed with beds to sleep the family of seven. When I arrive back there about a week later his wife Mary has shopping bag in hand and is about to go out to join the bread queue. I call her back and sit her down on one of the beds with Higon - I need them together because there is a part of the story they don’t know yet. As well as filming in Siglo XX we also want to take Higon on a trip to Europe to see the tin he mines being sold and used.
They take the news so calmly I fear I haven’t been understood. So I go on about suitcases, passports and money to drive the point home. Yes, they understood. Mary talks about having to take a month’s leave from schoolteachingto look after the children while he’s away. Higon is already working out all the things he can do when he comes back - giving talks to union meetings or schools.
When the film crew arrives he makes an eloquent guide down the mine. Squelching around in the grey slimy mud, he explains how the thousands of tons of ore are dragged from the hill each year. But conversations are punctuated by the thuds of the explosions that break up the rocks. After each blast a haze of silica dust hangs in the air ready to be sucked into the miners lungs. ‘If he spends all his time in this part of the mine,’ he explains, ‘a worker will only last five years before he gets sick with silicosis.’
When the explosion is to be nearby, the miners hurry into a tunnel refuge and sit placidly chewing coca leaves until the danger is past.
The falling rocks cause accidents, too. Higon himself was buried in a fall a few years back. ‘I was a year in hospital paralysed from the waist down. And they had to operate to remove a testicle.’
Higon’s sacrifice - and that of all the other miners disabled by their occupation - is for a metal that makes up half the value of Bolivia’s exports. It’s the country’s biggest official foreign exchange earner but it never brings in enough to keep pace with the world economy. Tin has held up better than many other commodities, but the prices of many other goods on the world market have been steadily climbing. So while a ton of tin would buy 640 barrels of oil in 1975 nowadays it will only fetch 460. And to make matters worse Bolivia’s tin ores are now very low grade.
Low export prices have pushed many Third World nations to even greater dependency on the West. In 1982 some 70 per cent of Bolivia’s export earnings was used up just paying for the foreign debt. Without their knowledge, Higon and his friends in Siglo XX are really working for the likes of Chase Manhattan and Lloyds.
But now we’ve filmed him at work the day has come for the emotional farewells to his family before we take him back to Europe with us. An embrace for his wife and each of his five children and we are on our way.
Two hours from Siglo XX we run into a blockade. Miners in Huanuni, the next town, are protesting about changes proposed for the tin mine they work in - and about the low wages. Piles of rock block the road and they will let no-one through; trucks that try to take a detour are discouraged by having sticks of dynamite thrown at them.
Towards dusk a government delegation rolls up in its jeeps. They promise to look into the miners grievances. No-one is much convinced by this. But at least it gives the strikers the excuse for a night in bed.
It also means we can get past the blockade and gets us as far as Vinto. This is where Bolivia’s biggest tin smelting works shoots out red-hot molten metal in spectacular showers of sparks. Outside lines of glinting ingots of tin await their shipment to foreign parts; to the USSR, North America and Europe.
We, however, have to stop in La Paz for an appointment in the grey marbled headquarters of the Mining Corporation of Bolivia. We are to meet union leader Victor Lopez. This might seem a strange place to find him. But the miners’ federation have recently forced their way into the government building and taken over the Corporation, which they say is wasting the miners’ hard-earned money.
So now the union leader is in charge of the whole industry. A dapper grey-suited little man, Lopez receives an endless stream of miners and their wives - the earthy smell of the working boots mixing strangely with the mahogany and polish of the managing director’s office.
Lopez wants to prepare Higon for what he will see. ‘In London,’ he tells him, ‘they haven’t a clue about the mining countries. A drop in the price of tin is an economic and political disaster to us.
The economic disaster from Bolivia’s falling income seems real enough on the streets outside as subsidies on basic necessities are withdrawn. Demonstrations block the traffic day after day - about bus fare hikes, rising bread prices or shortages of rice. These are partly shows of strength by the workers to discourage a right-wing coup - Bolivia’s elected government is showing signs of imminent collapse. Only yesterday Higon was trapped choking from tear-gas in an alley as police broke up a student protest.
But today the tear-gas is forgotten as a jumbo-jet flight to Europe offers its own kind of excitement. Dials and meters flash in the cockpit, every signal passing through metal that Higon might have dug out of the ground himself. ‘Incredible to think,’ he says after chatting to the pilot, ‘that tin is so vital to a machine like this.’
The relentless flow of food inside the aircraft is a lot less vital. The 20-hour trip pushes six meals under his nose, each of them sufficient to have fuelled an entire shift down the mine. He gives up after the first.
His first London visit is to the place where the permanent link between Bolivia’s poverty and our wealth is forged - on the floor of the London Metal Exchange. In five minutes of apparent bedlam each day tin changes hands at $14,000 a ton. Sharp-suited young men sit round in a ring bawling prices at each other, while behind them fingers jab and poke in all directions, passing on the price changes in a sort of deaf-and-dumb sign language to other clerks. Then the bell rings, the guillotine falls, and it’s all over for the day.
Higon is amazed. He can’t see any tin. ‘I imagined that they would show samples - not that they would just do it by talking.’
Christopher Green, the epitome of a city gent in his pin-stripe suit and a director of the London Metal Exchange, explains to him just how it works. ‘Instead of passing over piece’s of metal we pass over pieces of paper. These are documents of title to tin which is kept in warehouses.
‘But all this shouting about prices,’ says Higon, ‘takes no account of the human effort which goes into the production of the metal.’
‘The price is determined by the international conjunction of supply and demand,’ explains Green kindly. ‘Members here will be aware of the hardship that goes into the production of tin. But this market is just one process in the long chain of bringing metal to where it is needed.’
‘I still think that the human contribution should be given more importance, so that the workers are given a fairer price.’
‘That doesn’t come into the calculation of the price. This is made by the international conditions ruling in the tin market overall.’
But these conditions can be changed - and, as Green explains, the international tin agreement is designed to do just that. A group of tin-producing and consuming countries have agreed to try to keep the market price within certain limits. A buffer stock is maintained from which tin can be sold if the price gets too high or added to if it falls too low.
Commodity agreements have their critics. The Reagan administration disapproves of them as an interference in the free market. And Bolivia refuses to join because she thinks the price is too low and wants pressure to be exerted on the consumers via an OPEC-style producers agreement.
To an ordinary miner all this wheeling and dealing comes as a surprise. ‘The workers don’t know anything about this process. All we know is that we get low salaries,’ says Higon as the clerks bustle past him for the next shouting sessions on copper and silver and zinc.
Elsewhere there’s an altogether calmer process that’s lifting tin into the space age. Banks of satellite monitors destined for British Aerospace fill the test area of Computer Technology Ltd. We’re in Hemel Hempstead in an airy carpeted workplace that seems more office than factory.
Higon peers into a ‘wave-solder’ machine. Lines of printed circuit boards are floated over the top of a bath of molten solder to have their components fixed into place. There’s around a ton of molten metal in there and 60 per cent of it is tin.
‘What if the price of tin went up? Well,’ says the manager, ‘we would have to pay more. There is no alternative.’
But other tin users do have alternatives. The biggest consumers are the can-makers who take up 40 per cent of production. Aluminium is their second choice - ironically an export of other poor countries like Jamaica. So competition between tin and aluminium exporters keeps the prices down and sets the poor against each other.
And on one of the front lines of this battle is Higon. For digging the metal out of the ground Higon earns about $30 a month. And he is just about to go back to doing just that. But the wealth of London will always, he says, stick in his mind. The acres of clothes and food in Oxford Street numbed him with the choice on offer. True we put pouncjs in his pocket as he wandered round Marks and Spencers, but this leap from poverty to wealth has lasted two weeks only.
During this time he has taken to calling me the ‘great fisherman’ since I hooked him from all the miners in Bolivia. Now he is being dropped back into the sea, or at least put on a plane back to Bolivia: back to the dust and the dangers.
Two weeks after his departure, a letter arrives. ‘...when I got back to La Paz I fainted in the airport and had to spend the night in the city. I got to Siglo XX the next day at 10.00 p.m. and all the family woke up to meet me. I have been telling all my friends about the visit to the metal exchange and to the factories and the shops where you can buy anything you want...'
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7