Our Journey continues in Bolivia as we arrived in Potosi, a historical landmark in the development of South America. We landed on Dia de Potosi and found ourselves immersed in parades and music around the central plaza. Founded on April 1st, 1545, Potosi is a testimony to 474 years of Columbian Exchange and Globalization. Perhaps one of the best known centers of Spanish colonization during the Age of Exploration, Potosi is also a witness to human cruelty in wake of Mercantilism and Capitalism.
Our exploration of Potosi began with some free time around the historical center, filled with cathedrals, churches, and colonial architectural structures. The city sits at around 4000 meters of altitude, making each step and each breathe a little slower than usual. As you look South, it is hard to not notice the Cerro Rico, one of the main reasons why Villa Imperial de Potosi even exists. It is a mixed blessing. While the locals enjoyed its riches prior to encountering the Conquistadors, the life after could only be described as misery.
The Devil´s Miner, a documentary on the daily lives of the Cerro Rico Miners was the beginning of our mining learning experience. The protagonist, Basilio, then a 14-year-old boy, was going to be our guide into the mines. With a basic background on the mining industry, we headed up the Cerro Rico with Basilio. Helmets, Lights, Bandanas, and Buffs. The next we knew we were in the mine shaft that was obscure and surrounded by the riches of the Tio and Pachamama in a wide array of colors. Basilio gave us a comprehensive overview of the entire process: the tons of minerals being pushed in and out of the mine, the pulley system moving up and down deposits, and the intricate tunneling system. The tour ended with offerings (Coca leaves, pure alcohol, and cigarettes) to the Tio, who is the devil that dwells in the mines and offer protection and luck to the miners.
Following the tour, many people remarked on the amount of dust they saw and the dangers of working in a mine. I cannot forget about the dynamite that Basilio showed us and how the miners had to work with lethal devices daily. Cerro Rico is known as the mountain that eats people alive. The miners live daily with the only wish of returning home after 8 to 24 hours of work. The job is not for the weary as dangers loom every moment: if one is fortunate enough to make it through the day without injuries and collapses, there is always the long term health concern that limits many miners´ lives to only 40 years.
It is a cycle that is hard to escape. For generations they worked as miners while hoping to leave the mines when the opportunity is ever presented. However, that moment never came. For most, mining is the only way to make a living since the Spanish imposed the inhumane mita (labor tax) on the local people. The technology for mining has improved, but the harsh conditions have remained the same. For young miners, receiving education looks promising but eventually they return to the mine after the despair of unable to find a job elsewhere. This is the system that is present today and has been present for the last 500 years. Is it inevitable? This is the question that I keep asking myself as I left the mine. The minerals of Potosi have fueled human progress and led us through the industrial revolution as well as World Wars. What has been ignored is often the cost of human capital and the loss of culture.