Bolivia: Silver mines of Potosi

It is a cool, quiet morning when we arrive in this formerly wealthy mining town, and after checking in, we book a tour to a silver mine in Cerro Rico, a nearby mountain.

Potosi is the highest city in the world of its size, at 4,090m. The city was incredibly important in colonial times – the Spanish exploited the rich sources of silver in Cerro Rico using indigenous and slave labour, then carted it off to the Old World. This made the city fabulously rich, with a population of over 200,000 people at one point in history.

Potosi old town
Potosi’s historical town centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Spanish used the Inca system of mita, or enforced labour to mine the silver and many thousands of workers died of cold, hunger, brutality, hard labour and mercury poisoning. After all the richest veins had been mined, the town fell from importance. Wealth dwindled and the old colonial buildings around the main square fell into disrepair. Today, the mines are still being worked by a cooperative of workers. Their methods remain medieval and they lack protective gear but they no longer handle mercury.

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Potosi mine entrance
One of many entrances to Potosi’s silver mines

It is customary to bring gifts to the miners we visit, and our bags contain coca leaves, dynamite (by far the most expensive and important item we can give the miners), and food. The miners use the dynamite to blow up veins, then collect the rubble in carts weighing almost 1 tonne, before dragging the material out. All the work is done by hand – few miners can afford the cost of using electrical equipment.

The average wage is Bs70, or USD10 a day, for about 20 hours of physical labour – the miners use coca leaves to keep hunger, fatigue and thirst at bay. When I asked why they continue to work here, in the mines, with threat of early death, sickness and such low pay, the answer came: it was better than no work at all. There are scarce jobs in Potosi, where the main industries are mine support activities and now, a burgeoning interest in tourism.

Potosi ore
Ore from the mines – few veins of silver are now left

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But where is the fine line between cultural exchange and exploitation? Should tours even continue to be run into the mines? Are we no better than the colonial Spanish, who exploited the lives of the miners?

We were assured that a portion of our tour fees would go to the miners’ cooperative, but this is South America, and it is difficult to say where or who the money will go to. Our gifts were welcomed with a smile, but it is hard to escape the fact that the miners have hard lives, with no health insurance, no pension and low pay for hazardous conditions. Is it right that tourists should continue to visit, to learn, experience, but also to perpetuate the working conditions of the mines? Do our tourist dollars really make a difference, help to improve the miners lives?

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Tour groups can request their mine guide for a demonstration of the explosives. It seemed a blatant waste and absolute disregard of the miners’ harsh realities that we would want to blow up an entire stick of dynamite representing half of their daily wage, just for shock value.

Potosi Tio the Devil
Tio Jorge, the Devil himself, in the mines of Potosi

Underground, we switch off our headlights for a minute or two. It is pitch black, and eerily silent. Down in the darkness, we spill some 96 proof alcohol for Pachamama, the Earth Goddess, and drizzle some as a gift on the many statues of Tio Jorge, Uncle George, the Devil, whom the miners worship. Here, embraced by darkness, by stone and rock, silence and stillness, it seems apt.

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