Potosi silver mine

Written by Jane Harris No Gravatar

At 4,070 metres Potosi is the highest city in the world. It was founded in the sixteenth century by Spanish invaders and quickly became the richest and most powerful city in South America because of one thing – silver. The mountain behind the town contained an abundance of the precious metal, and wealth from mining funded the city’s stunning colonial squares, houses and churches. These remain today, hence Potosi’s status as a UNESCO world heritage site. One only has to wander around the museum housing the city’s old printing mint to appreciate quite how financially elevated a position Potosi held.

But the wealth came at a price. The indigenous population as well as slave labourers brought in from Africa were forced to work in the mines in awful conditions. Once they entered the mine many never saw the light of day again. In total, over eight million people have died in Potosi’s mines.

Most of the silver has long since been depleted, but small veins of zinc, tin and other minerals still exist, so the mountain is mined to this day. Tourism has developed around the mine. Indeed it is the biggest pull for travellers to the area. Underground tours are advertised all around the city – often by life size mannequins in mining outfits.

Participants pay the tour company a small fee for the tour. They are then kitted out in protective clothing and taken to the local miners’ market to buy gifts for the miners in the form of mining equipment (dynamite, ammonium nitrate and metal fuses) and soft drinks. A trip to one of the private processing plants follows before the trip to the mine proper begins.

The miners work in cooperatives and each cooperative decides whether or not to invite tourists into the tunnels in which they work. Still, I found it difficult to decide whether or not to sign up. On the one hand I hoped that the gifts might reduce the money the miners had to spend on equipment and the time they had to spend underground. On the other hand I felt uncomfortable that our gifts were supporting a way of life that is fundamentally harmful to those engaged in it.

We watched an excellent documentary about the conditions in the mine, called The Devil’s Miner and decided to give it a miss. But our minds were changed by a conversation with a fellow traveller who had taken the tour the previous day and felt the tours to be a positive thing for the local community. Certainly the guides are all ex-miners, so in that respect the tours offer an alternative profession for a lucky few in an area where other options are thin on the ground.

We set off later that day and within an hour of leaving the town were 20 metres below ground in some of the harshest working conditions I have ever seen. Miners heave one ton trucks through dark tunnels 65 metres underground in temperatures of over 35 degrees centigrade. The fact that most miners in Potosi work in cooperatives, setting their own hours and conditions of work might sound better than having hours imposed on them by private owners but in reality poverty is the more demanding boss. The three private companies that work the mountain at least ensure that nobody works more than an eight hour day and that a minimum age of 18 is adhered to. With no limits imposed on their working day it’s not uncommon for cooperative miners to work for more than 12 hours without a break and for children as young as 12 to be working down there.

Miners chew coca leaves incessantly. Part of the plant from which cocaine is derived, coca acts as an artificial stimulant, and also supposedly helps to suppress anxiety about safety in the mine. Not surprisingly miners also look for divine assistance. While they accept the Christian god above ground they believe he holds no sway in the bowels of the earth. They seek instead to placate Tio – the god of the underworld. Each mine has its own Tio – formed from rock or clay. The Tio is brought offerings of alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves in order to ensure miners are allowed to work without injury or death.

The most frequent cause of both in the mines is a ‘cave-in’ caused by constant dynamiting. Many other miners die from respiratory disorders. Dust generated by underground explosions carries asbestos and other harmful minerals. These shorten the life expectancy of miners from a Bolivian average of 61 to around 45.

We met a man who had worked there for 25 years. At 41 he was just a year older than me. He started working in the mine the same time I finished my O-levels and has done so ever since. He spoke to us from a hole just a foot or so across, eight foot below us, and as we stood there with our guide translating his muttered responses, I knew that he would probably be dead within five years

I left the tour shortly after that meeting. Despite the fact that the trips run with the miners’ consent, our presence seemed demeaning. We walked past them in fancy outfits designed to keep the dust off our everyday clothes – the same dust that has already permeated their lungs – using the harsh reality of their everyday existence as a tourist attraction and doling out gifts to cover our embarrassment. I was correct in my initial assessment. I shouldn’t have gone.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that tourism to disadvantaged areas can be educational and that education can inspire change at all sorts of levels. But tours needs to be run in a way that is sensitive to those for whom the experience is a way of life and with at least part of the money helping to generate more sustainable alternatives. It’s just my view of course, but sadly at the moment I don’t think that is the case in Potosi.

3 Responses to “Potosi silver mine”

  1. JeffNo Gravatar says:

    As you say – difficult to feel good about supporting the mine. Not in the same league I know – we went to the main coal mining museum in wales a few weeks back. Again all run by ex miners. Interesting tour by an ex minor underground – his first job underground was looking after pit ponies in a real mine after leaving school! It really wasn’t that long ago ponies spent their whole life underground before heavy machines took over – only comming up for a week a year when the pit closed. Definitely not a job for tall people – I was crouching down for most of the trip through the older tunnels bumping my head as I went along…

  2. rockguyNo Gravatar says:

    After reading your article I got the impression that you have a generally negative view of mining. I would urge you to reconsider. Without the raw materials obtained through mining the standard of living we enjoy in developed countries would not be possible. Take zinc for example, its principal use is for a protective coating on things made of iron or steel that are exposed to the elements like bridges, fences, light posts, roofing, and cars. Tin is used predominantly in solder, which is found in anything with a circuit board. Solder is also used to join metal pipes. You say you feel bad supporting these people mining, but every time you use a car, a bridge, a handrail, a computer, and pipes you are supporting this mine. If you really don’t want to support it stop using all of these things, however I think you will find that more than difficult. It would have been great if you had shown some appreciation to these people who risk their lives to support your standard of living, rather than shame and embarrassment over their harsh work conditions. Some jobs suck, they can be gross or dangerous or both, but you should be appreciative rather than pretend they don’t exist. Also, more sustainable alternatives to what? Mining? There is no other way to get more of these materials so I’m not sure what you mean there.

    • Jane HarrisNo Gravatar says:

      Hi there rockguy

      Thanks for the feedback on the blog – very useful. The article was not intended not as a critique of mining in general but of the type of tourist trip I experienced in Potosi.

      I am certainly appreciative of work undertaken by miners. I am from a mining family myself (coal mining in this case). In Potosi I felt uneasy about being part of a tour group that seemed to derive some sort of a thrill from temporary immersion in the harsher aspects of the mine, and that also expected the individuals working there to engage in discussion when it was clear that they were not always comfortable doing so.

      Yes, the miners do have collective choice as to whether or not to invite people into their mines but it is a choice (as it was explained to us) driven by growing poverty. The seams in Potosi are apparently diminishing, with longer working hours yielding lower returns.

      So beyond the donation of dynamite, what sort of a more ‘sustainable’ change might a commercial tour company support? Well, I am no expert but it seems to me that in this case investment in alternative industries might not be a bad thing. Certainly one of the miners we spoke to was at pains to air his view that it would be better if alternative employment could be found for the 800+ children working there. Apparently a trust has been set up by a German organisation to go one step further and pay for their living costs and education. Perhaps that sort of initiative would be appropriate?

      I guess it was the children I was specifically referring to when I referenced my discomfort at ‘promoting a way of life’ that was ‘harmful to those engaged in it’ They were the subject of the documentary I mentioned. I can see on re-reading, however, that I didn’t make that clear. Putting dynamite into the hand of a child jars. But, as you say, we do that by using the product of their labours anyway. At that level it’s a complex issue. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

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