Glencore shirks its responsibility in Bolivia

At the Porco mine operated by a Glencore subsidiary in the Bolivian Highlands, cooperatives dig for zinc, lead and silver. They take what is left behind by the operator, working in inhumane and dangerous conditions. The Swiss company buys a large portion of that ore, while systematically turning a blind eye to the frequent work accidents and the water pollution. The Responsible Business Initiative would help to finally put an end to this organised lawlessness.

There are no official statistics on accidents, but according to an experienced doctor on the ground, there are, on average, approximately 20 fatalities a year at the Porco mine. In 2017, when rising commodities prices lured more workers than usual to the mine, there was a fatality nearly every week, tells the doctor in Public Eye’s most recent investigation. According to her, underage workers are regularly admitted to the health centre in the village of Porco. The youngest patient was only 11 years old. Most accidents are caused by falling stone slabs due to explosions, and falls. Our reporter visited the mine and saw for himself how few safety precautions are in place in the tunnels.

Zinc, silver and lead have been mined in Porco for 700 years. It is the oldest mine in Bolivia and is currently operated by Sociedad Minera Illapa S.A., a 100% subsidiary of Glencore. In 2013, Illapa signed a 15-year association agreement for the operation of the Porco mine with state-owned Corporación Minera de Bolivia (Comibol). Under the agreement, “all operational aspects” fall under the “exclusive, comprehensive and full responsibility” of Illapa – and therefore also the Swiss parent company. Illapa has some 400 workers; the cooperatives employ ten times as many. When industrial mining is no longer lucrative for Glencore’s subsidiary in a certain area of its concession, the cooperatives come in to mine the leftovers – using very primitive methods and putting lives at risk.

In addition, the mine poisons the water of the villages located beneath it. In Sora Molina for instance, the Porco authorities measured traces of zinc six times over the maximum level permitted in Bolivia in the Agua Castillo river, which is the inhabitants’ main source of drinking water. Levels of iron – which in high concentrations is also damaging to human health and the environment – were even 28 times over the statutory permitted maximum; for manganese it was over 50 times. The environmental and social impacts are severe: when lamas drink the water they die, crop yields have fallen by over half and, as consequence, people are leaving their villages.

Confronted with these findings, a Glencore spokesperson in Baar states that the company is working with the authorities in Porco “to better understand their concerns around the water quality”. According to Glencore, the offtake agreements between their subsidiary and the cooperatives at the Porco mine are subject to a due diligence requirement that specifically includes operational safety and the risk of child labour. On the ground, however, it is obvious that these assessments prevent neither the appalling safety standards nor the use of underage workers.

If the Responsible Business Initiative is adopted in Switzerland, Glencore would have to ensure that mining activities no longer poison the Agua Castilla river, which is of vital importance to the region. The company would also be forced to do everything in its power to prevent underage workers from grafting in Porco and severe, often fatal, accidents from occurring.

Click here for the full report and here for press photos.

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Oliver Classen, Media Officer, 044 277 79 06,