Founded in the early 17th century, Oruro owes its existence to the mineral-rich 10-sq-km range of hills rising 350m behind the city. Chock-full of copper, silver and tin, these hills still form the city’s economic backbone.
By the 1920s Bolivia’s thriving tin-mining industry rested in the hands of three powerful capitalists. The most renowned was Simón Patiño, a mestizo from the Cochabamba valley who became one of the world’s wealthiest men. In 1897 Patiño purchased La Salvadora mine near the village of Uncia, east of Oruro, which eventually became the world’s most productive tin source. Patiño’s fortunes snowballed and by 1924 he had gained control of about 50% of the nation’s tin output.
Once secure in his wealth, Patiño migrated to Britain, where he started buying up European and North American smelters and tin interests. As a consequence Bolivia found itself exporting both its precious metal and its profits. Public outcry launched a series of labor uprisings, and set the stage for nationalization of the mines in 1952 and the subsequent creation of the government-run Corporación Minera de Bolivia (Comibol).
Decades of government inefficiency, corruption and low world tin prices proceeded the push for capitalización (a variation on privatization), which eventually brought about the dissolution of Comibol in the mid-1980s.
Most of the mines in the area closed down, although they are still worked by local cooperatives. The Morales government is now seeking investment to reopen some of the mines, with higher commodities prices on the global market making this a potential reality. It’s an important symbolic step too, as Bolivia’s mineral wealth has long been linked to feelings of national pride. Orureños are also proud that Morales is from their province; he was born in Isallavi, a tiny Aymará village on the western side of Lake Poopó, and went to secondary school in Oruro.