Potosi: fabulous colonial wealth & extreme poverty
Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
43Trip End Sep 12, 2010
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Where I stayed
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
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
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!)
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!