In Bolivia, there is no large-scale gold mining. Traditionally, most gold mining took place in the highlands, where small and medium-scale mining was practiced and today still dominates. In the lowlands, gold mining has for a long time been an activity of families living near the rivers, working on it during their ‘spare days’. Today, both middle range and small scale gold mining set the scene. 

Typical to Bolivia is the cooperative structure of mining organizations. The cooperatives generally use somewhat more sophisticated technologies, like balsas with fully equipped extraction systems on board. However, working conditions and respect for safety and the environment in many cases leave much to desire. The balsa-type operation is still considered small-scale mining. In the northern lowlands, cooperativas have become more predominant today than the more informal and temporary mining. Gold mining in Bolivia is thus mostly small-scale, different from company-type mining, but also different from the artisanal family or clan-based mining.

On the Madre the Dios river, the area of GOMIAM’s study, the typical form of gold mining is with balsas. Every balsa has a sluice box (canaleta) of about 4 meters wide, covered with a rug locally known as cabello de negro. After a working session (about 20 hours), the rugs are washed to obtain the concentrate, basically ‘black sands’ and gold. This is put in a big plastic tub or bowl, in which it is amalgamated with mercury. To do this, sometimes with bare feet, and sometimes shaking equipment is used. The amalgam is burned (if done correctly, in a retort), after which between 10 and 20 grams of gold is obtained.