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 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 emigrated from Bolivia 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 global tin prices preceded the push for capitalización (a variation on privatization), which eventually brought about the dissolution of Comibol in the mid-1980s. When the last mine closed in Oruro, it was a hard hit for the city.
The price of tin went back up in the early 1990s and a handful of local cooperative mines reopened. Then in 2008 it dropped to US$7 per pound and salaries plummeted, but since then the market has improved, with high mineral and metal prices worldwide.
Orureños are extremely proud that current president Evo Morales is from their province; he was born in Orinoca, a tiny Aymará village on the western side of Lake Poopó. He went to secondary school in Oruro.