Potosi: fabulous colonial wealth & extreme poverty

Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
Trip End Sep 12, 2010

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Riding a crowded local bus, we jounced along the dirt road between Sucre and Potosi for ten long hours. At 13,420' above sea level, Potosi is one of the world's highest cities. It is the famed city of Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), from where the Spanish Empire acquired most of its silver during the colonial era. Huge quantities of silver were taken to Potosi's mint, where the raw ore was formed into "pieces of eight". These were carried overland by llama and mules along the a port along the Spanish Main, from where they were taken by "treasure fleets" to Spain. 

Cerro Rico, Rich Mountain, a 5,300meter tall mountain towers over the city, a grim reminder of Potosi's brutal past. Before the arrival of the Spaniard conquerers, the natives knew, had always known, of the riches contained in the big mountain, but had left it untouched. It was believed that the gold and other riches within the mountain was the property of Pachamama. To mine here would be akin to stealing from their beloved Earth Mother. The arrival of the Spaniards changed all that. 

The Spaniards couldn't believe their good fortune when word trickled from the region of fabulous, untapped riches near Potosi. They wasted no time building a mine to extract gold and silver for the Spanish King. Much of the wealth of Spain came from here. There was so much silver that everyday items were made from it; the Royal Mint Museum in Potosi displays a solid silver chamberpot. African and Indigenous slaves were brought to work the mines. Over the 250 years of colonial rule, more than 8 million died here, a shocking number. 
The opulent city of Potosi and its bare mountain, now reduced in height to 4,700meters, and the poverty striken indiginous workers mining in unsafe conditions, remain as testament to the mine's riches and the price to be paid for extracting them.
The vast majority of the mineral wealth is now long gone, the silver followed more recently by a dwindling quantity of zinc, tin and copper, most of it has already been extracted and exported by foreign companies.  The companies are long gone now, off to find more lucrative mineral deposits. All that remains of their activity are the toxic waste piles and derelict mines, mills and refuse left behind. Incredibly, several mines are active, now worked by a cooperative of indigenous (Quechua) miners. Today, the mined rocks are exported whole; no minerals are processed in Bolivia. Virtually none of this wealth stays with the natives, who still live in primitive conditions around the mines.Accidental injuries and deaths still occur on a regular basis. The miners cooperative is making slow progress toward securing on-site medical care and safety measures in the mine. There as yet is no health clinic near the mine. Injured workers must be conveyed ten miles to the hospital in Potosi. 
Tours of the working mines are the main attraction in Potosi, and each day many tourists don overalls, helmets, lamps and boots and head up the mountain from the town. First stop is at the miners' market to buy gifts of pure alcohol (96% 'Buen Sabor'), cheap homemade cigarettes (30 cents for a pack of 20), coca leaves, soda & dynamite - since the miners are not paid for the tours, these are the price of admission, all hastening the early deaths of these hard working indigenous miners. The miners start work in their late teens (supposedly child labor is ended, but children of 12 used to work here) and the average working life is just 15 years before the miners die or are invalided out with silicosis (lung disease) from the poisonous gases and dust. Of course there is very little medical care or pensions for them, but since the daily salary is up to 60 Bolivianos ($7.50), more than 3 times the average indigenous wage, the miners have no real choice but to work in the mines.The tours head 2000m inside the mountain, right up to the mine face where the minerals still contain some value and are being worked by hand (very few power tools of any kind here!). Here the temperature exceeds 40C (104F) and is is hard to breathe from the heat, dust and altitude (remember you are at 4,350m - 14,500 feet). Even the miners can only work here for 2-3 hours before they have to leave. For us, just 20-30 minutes was more than enough. All through the mine are signs of decay - rotten wood beams barely holding the ceiling up; water running down the walls and up to your calves; cave-ins and places where you must crawl to get through. We moved through the warren of tunnels, banging our heads repeatedly (thank goodness for the helmets!), coughing and sweating profusely, occasional tour members turning back, standing aside when miners came by pushing two tonne ore carts (2 people pushing a two tonne car....). 
Were we thankful when we could feel the cooler air close to the entrance and AT LAST - the sight of light at the end of the tunnel and out into the blinding daylight again (there is no lighting in the mine, just that from your headlamp...).
Two hours underground was plenty long enough to leave an enduring impression - what a terrible place for people to work! This has gone on for almost 500 years and it's time should be over!
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Grampa on

WOW! I'd be afraid to go in those mines. 2000 M is close to a mile, and with all those rotten timbers. Did they pump air back in there? Reminds me of "Road to Wigan Pier" by George Orwell.(His description of a coal mine.) You guys are braver than I am.

Leta Peterson on

Amazing adventure, this mine trip. Reminds me of a crazy trip we took up the Amazon from Manaus. Oh, it would probably seem tame to you guys.....

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