In 1672, Potosi, Bolivia, was one of the largest and richest cities in the world. Located at the base of Cerro Rico, Potosi was a hotbed of Spanish silver mining, the operations of which were so prolific, a potosi became synonymous for great riches.
Three hundred forty years later, Potosi is poor and rife with conflict. Just last month miners barricaded all routes out of the city, trapping more than one hundred foreign tourists for twenty days. Its hardly a surprise that the Bolivian press calls mining the burden of Potosi.
Latin American history is littered with tales of commodity booms gone bust like Potosis. That the quick riches never seem to produce lasting wealth has led some to conclude that the region, like other resource-rich regions, is under a natural resource curse.
But for Latin America, where 93% of the population and 97% of economic activity is in countries that are net commodity exporters, the hex is far from universal. A team of World Bank economists and political scientists this year has found some important trends suggesting that todays commodity booms will not end like the old.
One reason for this optimism is good governance. National governments and financial institutions are far better than they used to be and much more likely to manage the latest commodity windfalls with an eye on long-term growth over short-term gains.
Chile, the worlds largest copper exporter whose commodities account for more than 75% of its exports, is a case in point. Years ago the countrys leaders, on both ends of the political spectrum, agreed to save a significant percentage of earnings from the copper boom and spend the rest wisely.
In the past five years, the countrys investments in innovation have grown on average 24% annually. At the same time, Chile has invested vigorously in education and created a US$6 billion scholarship fund that will take some 3,300 professionals abroad to study this year a 672% increase over 2006.
Had Chile ignored the need to improve productivity, invest in human capital, and encourage innovation, its commodity dependence could have become a liability and undermined growth. Instead, over the past decade, Chiles gross domestic product grew more than two and half times.
The other reason for optimism is that commodity production in the region is changing. In the past, foreign companies profited most -- they built the road or the railroad to the mine, extracted the countrys wealth, took it abroad and left poorer nations behind.
Today, it is far more common to see commodity extraction linked to other economic activities directly benefiting the source country. A 2009 study of a Peruvian gold mine, for example, found an extensive network of local businesses tied to the operations of the mine. Each 10% increase in the mines economic activities paralleled a 1.7% increase in local incomes.
Whats more, regional commodity producers no longer need to be foreign to be big and skilful. In Brazil, the main force behind its farming revolution is Embrapa, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. Thirty years ago, the countrys vast savannas, known as the cerrado, were deemed too acidic for any sort of productive farming. The cerrado is nowadays a new Brazilian heartland and accounts for over half of Brazil's farm output.
Embrapa, a public company founded in 1973, is now considered the worlds leading tropical-research institution. Its major achievement has clearly been to turn Brazil, in less than three decades, from a food importer to one of the top food exporters in the world.
This degree of progress requires investment in research and development. It also requires long-term vision and, more importantly, long-term savings. The region as a whole, unfortunately, does not excel on these fronts yet. Of the five countries in the region that set aside hydrocarbon or mineral revenues into an investment fund during the 2002 boom, only two had enough savings to contribute to their recovery post-crisis.
History has shown that negative outcomes in resource-abundant countries are mainly confined to those with poor governance. Demands to spend during a boom are politically hard to ignore, particularly for weak regimes with little credibility. Without sufficient savings, any boom is likely to turn into a bust.
The good news is that governance in Latin America has come a long way. And for most countries in the region, commodities now are far more likely to be a blessing than a curse.
Augusto de la Torre is Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank