By: Víctor Hugo Pachas, Andean Region Manager
October 18th, 2023 Since our early days in school, we have heard about the Bronze Age, a period characterized by significant advancements in metallurgy throughout human history. Bronze, a blend of copper and tin, represents two historically important metals that have been mined across diverse geographical regions, notably in China and Indonesia.
Now, in the context of energy transition, tin has taken on a new role as “critical mineral” due to its essential importance in industry and technology. The designation stems from concerns about potential restrictions or disruptions of its supply chain. Both the United States and European authorities have listed tin as a mineral of paramount significance.
According to the 2022 edition of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Mineral Commodity Summaries (MCS), three South American countries ranked top for global tin production: Peru in fourth place with an output of 26,995 Fine Metric Tons (FMT), Brazil in fifth place with 22,000 FMT, and Bolivia in sixth place with 18,000 FMT. Within the territories of these three countries, small-scale tin mining is not confined to vein deposits alone but extends to alluvial deposits nestled in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.
Additionally, the absence of official government records regarding the number of tin miners in these countries and the lack of comprehensive studies addressing key aspects of the tin value chain underline the largely unknown gaps in environmental and health-related issues and the roles played by both men and women engaged in tin extraction. Nevertheless, within these nations, especially in the Andean regions where Quechua and Aymara populations reside, it is common to see shamans burning small amounts of tin on the streets for diagnosing illnesses, warding off ill wishes, and predicting the futures of locals and strangers.
As per the Annual Bolivian Mining Report (Ministry of Mining and Metallurgy:2023), tin production in Bolivia stands at 18,000 FMT. The principal export destinations include the Netherlands (34%), the United States (33%), and the United Kingdom (26%). Potosí, La Paz, and Oruro are the leading departments contributing to tin production in the country. The Bolivian mining sector employs a stratified framework for categorizing production entities, with the most significant tin production coming from the state-owned sector (58%), followed by cooperatives at 41%, while the private sector makes up a modest 1.7%. Tin mining cooperatives, the primary components of small-scale mining, are closely associated with the Bolivian Mining Corporation (COMIBOL), which provides a formalized structure for tin mining operations and plays a pivotal role in developing the entire mining production chain, encompassing exploration, extraction, smelting, refining, industrialization, and commercialization.
As per the Annual Peruvian Mining Report (Ministry of Energy and Mines:2023), Peru holds the fourth position globally in tin production, amounting to 26,995 FMT. The major export destinations include the United States (47.4%), the Netherlands (13%), and Spain (9.3%). Notably, the Annual Mining Report does not mention any instances of small-scale or artisanal tin mining in Peru. The sole company dedicated to the extraction of this metal is MINSUR, a subsidiary of the Peruvian Breca Group conglomerate, that conducts tin mining operations at the San Rafael Mine and Pisco Smelter in San Rafael, Puno (Antauta district, Melgar province), since 1977, contributing nearly 10% to global tin production, and completes its production cycle at the Pisco Smelter in Ica.
As per the Annual Brazilian Mining Report (National Mining Agency:2023), Brazil ranks fifth globally tin production, yielding 22,000 FMT annually. The main regions for tin production include the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, Pará, Mato Grosso, and Minas Gerais. Key entities engaged in tin production comprise the Cooperative of Tin Producers of Brazil, Mineração Taboca (a subsidiary of MINSUR, a Peruvian company), the Cooperative of Cassiterite Smelters of the Amazon, the Gold Miners Cooperative of Santa Cruz, the Mining Cooperative of Ariquemes, Tin of Rondônia, and the Miners Cooperative of São Félix do Xingu – Coomix. Beyond these companies, reports in Brazil and South America suggests a thriving presence of illegal tin mining, primarily in territories inhabited by indigenous communities. However, there are no official statistics regarding the number of miners involved or a clear understanding of the supply chain dynamics within the Amazon.
Strategies to Address the Challenges of Small-Scale Tin Mining
Recent cumulative official tin production from Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil would only equal Indonesia’s output (74,000 FMT), which holds the second position globally in the 2022 rankings, as per the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries. While Indonesia’s situation has been characterized by a historical backdrop of illegality and marked precarity for centuries, it is essential to understand the circumstances in these three South American countries, given their significant tin production volumes and their association with small-scale mining. The experiences of these three countries reveal unique scenarios encapsulating the challenges faced by tin miners and concerns within their respective governments, in which Brazilian case introduces a highly complex variable, primarily due to the direct and indirect associations between illegal tin mining and indigenous populations, where conflicts appear to be more visible.
Consequently, it is necessary to conduct further research into the value chain of small-scale tin mining and its environmental impacts. Close monitoring of private sector actors operating across these three countries is also crucial. In addition, engaging in constructive dialogues with government authorities to raise awareness regarding the pivotal role of this metal is deemed essential. Lastly, it is essential to acknowledge that the Amazon rainforest confronts not only environmental impacts from gold mining but also from the extraction of other metals, such as tin.
Ministry of Energy and Mines (2023). Annual Peruvian Mining Report. Ministry of Energy and Mines. Lima.
Ministry of Mining and Metallurgy (2023). Annual Bolivian Mining Report. Government of Bolivia. La Paz.
National Mining Agency (2023). Annual Brazilian Mineral Report: Main Metallic Substances. Brasilia.