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Bolivia pushes back against Swiss commodities giant Glencore

by Carmelo Ruiz-MarreroCorpWatch Blog
July 24th, 2012

Protest against Glencore and Xstrata in Switzerland. Photo courtesy Junge Alternative Zug

Glencore corporation, the secretive Swiss commodities giant which has become one of the world's biggest traders of grain, oil and minerals, has hit an unlikely roadblock: one of South America's poorest countries. On June 22, the Bolivian government seized the company's Colquiri tin and zinc mine, south of the capital city of La Paz.

Colquiri was the third Glencore operation to be nationalized by Bolivia in the last five years. In 2007 the government seized the Empresa Metalurgica Vinto zinc smelter and in 2010, the government seized the Vinto-Antimonio antimony smelter.

Glencore first made the media spotlight last May, when the company decided to sell shares on the London Stock Exchange. The Guardian newspaper marveled at the information that it discovered in the public prospectus. “(S)o jealously has (CEO Ivan) Glasenberg guarded his privacy that his name means nothing to the man on the street ,,, If you live outside the world of commodities trading or corporate finance, Ivan Glasenberg is probably the Most Important Businessman You Have Never Heard Of,” gushed the newspaper.

According to the 1,637-page prospectus, the company controlled over half of the global zinc and copper trade, approximately one third of the world's seaborne coal, and is one of the world's leading grain exporters, with about nine percent of the global market.

“Massive corporations like Glencore, the world’s largest commodity trading company, and the privately held and secretive Cargill, the world’s biggest trader of agricultural commodities, are moving to further consolidate their control of world grain markets and vertically integrate their global supply chains in a new form of food imperialism designed to profit off global misery,” wrote journalist Christian Parenti in the Nation magazine. “While bread triggered war and revolution in the Middle East, Glencore made windfall profits on the surge in grain prices. And the more expensive our loaf of bread becomes, the more money firms like Glencore and Cargill stand to make.”

“Already the world's biggest middleman, (Glencore) now wants to control the entire business chain, from mines and smelters to storage facilities for finished products, and from pumping oil to shipping it to refineries, while trading and hedging all along the way, industry experts say,” wrote Ken Silverstein in Foreign Policy magazine.

Glencore is no stranger to controversy and strife. In April a BBC investigation alleged that the company was indirectly buying cobalt and copper from children as young as ten who climb down hand dug shafts into the Tilwezembe mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with no protective equipment. Glencore is currently in the middle of a major strike by coal workers belonging to the Sintramienergetica union in Colombia, where the company owns the Prodeco mining corporation.

But in coming up against Bolivia, the company has touched a nerve because mining accounts for about 15 per cent of its gross domestic product. Today Bolivia is the world’s fourth-largest miner of tin (used mainly in soldering) and the seventh-largest producer of lead (used mainly in batteries).

Glencore has loudly objected to the Colquiri expropriation and has demanded compensation for the $22 million it claims to have invested in the mine. In a public statement, the company said it "strongly protests the action taken by the government of Bolivia and reserves its rights to seek fair compensation pursuant to all available domestic and international remedies."

The Bolivian government has a different view. “This is our mining policy: the State, cooperatives, and national investment”, stated the country's vice president Alvaro Garcia-Linera. “We’re not going to hand our country to foreigners who destroyed Bolivia and left it stagnating for 20 years.”

Glencore is not the sole target of Bolivian president Evo Morales. Since he took power in 2006, Morales has nationalized the local operations of Brazil's Petrobras oil company, a Telecom Italia subsidiary, four power utilities, and most recently Spanish electricity grid operator Red Electrica's local business.

The Bolivian government will decide how much it plans to pay Glencore by October.