Colonialism has left a bad mark on many countries in the world and Bolivia is no exception. It was subjected to harsh Spanish rule, like most of the continent, from 1545 until 1825. Bolivia became Spain’s most valuable possession in South America as silver was discovered in the Cerro Rico (rich hill) in Potosi. They used the indigenous population, but also imported Africans, as slaves in the huge silver mines in the mountain and Potosi soon became a boom city, becoming bigger than London and Paris at its peak. The silver enabled Spain to continue it’s domination and bankrolled the monarchy and many of its conquests. The Spanish have now gone but the silver remains and the mines are still in operation and also still inflicting immense suffering on the people who work in them.
It is possible now to visit the mines on a tour, which is no surprise when the tourism industry shows some interest. However, the tours have been plagued with criticism, for being too dangerous and unethical. I toyed with the idea of doing a tour for a while but in the end decided to do it because I thought if the miners can do it every day for hours on end I could do it for a couple of hours as a once off. I also figured that it was important to see it to really understand the conditions they work in, it’s important to hear their stories and spread the word.
We got suited up in mining gear: pants, jacket, gum boots, helmet and headlamp and then headed up to the Cerro Rico which had beautiful views over the town below. We entered an operational mine called Rosario. We were inside for about two hours and I must admit that it was the most intense and gruelling two hours of my life. I don’t get claustrophobic usually but the fact that I was deep down in a mine that was constructed over a century ago breathing in toxic chemicals and with no escape if something went wrong, I have to admit I was feeling quite anxious. At certain times I had a voice screaming in my head, “GET ME OUT OF HERE!”. But I survived and looking back it was an extremely interesting and unique experience.
We stopped to look at the devil shrine the miners make, El Tio. They believe that the devil lives underground and therefore they need to make offerings to him in order to gain his protection from accidents and good luck for finding a small fortune. They regularly offer coca leaves and alcohol and once a year they offer a baby llama as a sacrifice.
We continued down into the mine and met some workers along the way. We stopped to talk to them for ten minutes or so to find out their story and also to give them a gift pack each of us had to bring along that included coca leaves, alcohol and some food. The stories were heartbreaking and I kept thinking to myself that nobody should have to work in these conditions. There were teenagers working down there for their father, which was probably the most heart wrenching because it’s common knowledge now that the miners’ life spans are extremely short with most of them dying before the age of 40, mostly from the toxic gases and dust that cause lung diseases.
The other risk is of tunnels and mines collapsing which is a common occurrence with the ancient tunnels and support systems. Official figures say around 20 people die every year from collapsed mines but most say it’s probably much higher as a lot of deaths go unregistered. Historians estimate about eight million people have died mining in the mountain since the Spanish first discovered the silver deposits, which has earned it its nickname of the “mountain that eats men”.
Still, people are drawn to work in the mines because when prices of silver and tin are high some can make as much as $300 a week, much more than the Bolivian average. However, all the miners work for cooperatives which offer no basic pension benefits, health insurance or compensation in case of accident or death.
I was actually so glad to emerge from that mine. When I could see the light at the end of the tunnel an enormous wave of relief rushed over me. And that’s how the miners must feel every day. To emerge alive is a victory. My throat burned for a few hours afterwards even though I had been wearing a mask. The chemicals in the air down there were horrible and I couldn’t imagine getting used to them, although most of them claimed that’s what happens after a year or so.
It was emotional to see and I have to admit it made me angry that people have to live and work like that. But I know it’s not the only place in the world where working conditions are so dangerous and unfair, many of the raw materials and mineral sectors have similar stories in other developing countries. Human beings deserve much better than that.
*post adapted from my trip here in December 2015 and from my previous site elishasbigtrip.wordpress.com