Potosi and the Mines of Cerro Rico, Bolivia

Friday, April 27, 2001

High up in the remote desert plains of the Bolivian altiplano lies a city whose unimaginable wealth and large-scale industrial exploitation once placed it at the heart of the South American continent. Though now a poor, neglected back-water, the importance of Potosi to the history of Western Europe, let alone South America, is difficult to over-estimate. The mineral wealth discovered there during the 16th Century provided the largest injection of capital the European continent had ever seen. The silver deposits found in the hills of Cerro Rico provided the means and the inspiration for the industrialisation of Europe. They were to bank-roll the entire economy of Spain for over 250 years.

Colonial Exploitation

To the local Quechua Indians, the mineral wealth of Cerro Rico had long been known, though the name itself was coined later, by the Spanish. Legend has it that an Inca emperor had tried to mine the area, only to be confronted by a thunderous, unworldly voice telling the workers to down their tools. After that, the hills were treated with great respect and the nearby settlement was renamed Potojsi, the Quechua word for 'thunder'.

The arrival of the Conquistadores changed all that. The Europeans had come to South America in search of gold. They quickly conquered the Inca Empire of Atahaulpa, but had failed to uncover the legendary El Dorado. Potosi, with its huge reserves of silver, was easily the next best thing.

The local Indians were put to work. Slaves from Africa were imported and within a few years tens of thousands of individuals were working as forced labour in the mines, in the most inhumane conditions imaginable. Safety considerations were ignored and miners were treated as little more than animals.

It is not known precisely how many people died working in the mines of Cerro Rico during the centuries of Spanish rule. Conservative estimates place the figure at between four and six million people. In the 16th and 17th Centuries Cerro Rico was simply the biggest - and the most deadly - industrial complex in the world.

Independence

By the time Bolivia became an independent nation in 1825, the mines of Cerro Rico had been all but stripped of their financial value. The hills still contained huge reserves of tin and zinc - mined to this day - but the revenue earned from these lesser minerals could only be a fraction of that earned from the silver deposits.

The area was later nationalised, but in the 1980s the government transferred ownership of Cerro Rico to the workers themselves. Co-operatives were formed to exploit the remaining mineral resources.

Cerro Rico Today

Conditions in the mines have not improved markedly since colonial times. Cerro Rico remains an industrial area of considerable activity, but the workers are too poor to buy proper equipment. The mines are still crudely dug and badly ventilated. Pick-axes and Davy lamps are used instead of drills or torches. Individual seams are often dug vertically and descended using hands and feet. Ladders are only used to travel between different levels of a mine. Rail roads exist, but containers filled with ore have to be pushed manually. The mines are often water-logged too, especially in the lower levels, and cave-ins are a regular occurrence. Unsurprisingly, life expectancy for a miner in Potosi is a little less than 40 years.

Although life is very hard, some comfort can be drawn from the fact that the miners now have control over their own working environment. Each person works on his own initiative. Often the miners band together in small teams. If one of these teams discovers a particularly rich seam - as happens occasionally - it is theirs and theirs alone to exploit.

It is a friendly, close community. In difficult situations, the miners will go to extraordinary lengths to help each other. Stopping work means having no money for food, but if someone is trapped or inexplicably misplaced, the other miners will work tirelessly to find them. On one occasion (though this story may well be apocryphal) a young man disappeared and his colleagues spent several days frantically searching every level of the mine. It later transpired that he had eloped with of one of the other men's daughters.

The belief system of the workers today is a strange mix of local superstition and devout Catholicism. Above ground the miners are perfect Catholic Christians. Below, in the mines, they are nothing short of devil worshippers. Each mine has its own effigy of el Tio (literally 'the Uncle', a standard euphemism for the Devil) in place. The workers see no inconsistency in this. They reason that, if God is in charge of the world above, and homage is paid to him there, it makes perfect sense to pay homage to the god of the Underworld, especially when the miners spend so much of their lives below ground.

Tourism

In recent times, it has become possible to tour the mines of Cerro Rico. Several companies in Potosi organise guided tours. These are not for the faint-hearted. The Bolivians are a diminutive people and even they have to stoop to enter the narrow tunnels. Anyone afraid of the dark or of confined spaces should not even consider a visit. For those who do, it is a memorable, if somewhat disturbing, experience. The humidity, the darkness and the sheer crudeness of conditions leaves a lasting impression.

As each of the mines is co-operatively run, some of the revenue from each tour goes directly to the workers themselves and enables them to purchase vital equipment. As such, tourism here is not quite as inappropriate as it may seem at first.

When visiting the mines, it is considered polite to bring gifts for any miners you happen meet along the way. These can be purchased at the local markets. The most popular things you can buy are cigarettes, coca leaves1, fuses and dynamite. Dynamite is readily available, and can be purchased by absolutely anyone.

The markets exist for the benefit of the workers rather than for tourists, and thus prices are very low. The city of Potosi is such a remote and forbidding place that tourism is on a very small scale. The revenue from what little there is does at least feed directly into the local community.

Now at long last, though the best days of Cerro Rico are far behind it, the people of Potosi are reaping the benefits of their own environment.