April 2009

Following on from my last post it is worth examining what mining conditions are like in Potosi today, the environmental consequences and what role tourism plays in the future of this area. And…what on earth was I doing  down an asbestos filled mine in Bolivia?

My whole experience of Potosi is somewhat spine chilling when I look back. I actually feel guilty that I partook in this ‘tourist’ excursion to Cerro Rico. Was I conned into thinking that I was actually helping these miners by giving them some extra bolivianos to top up their measly wage? It was described as an experience of a lifetime. We were further lured in by the promise of being apply to buy dynamite, as if it was a toy, and set off  explosions on the hillside. In reality I was a naïve backpacker giving my money to western based tour companies for the pleasure of crawling on my hands and knees in the pitch dark for three hours.

Me with my dynamite stick bought from a miner. Shortly after this picture was taken we set off a series of explosion on the hillside - al part of the 'tourist experience'. Potosi is the only place in the world where you can buy dynamite over the counter.(Potosi, Bolivia 2007)

The dynamite stick I bought from a miner. Shortly after this picture was taken we set off a series of explosion on the hillside - all part of the 'tourist experience'. Potosi is the only place in the world where you can buy dynamite over the counter. (Potosi, Bolivia 2007)

First we were given a history lesson by our tour guides…Cerro Rico silver paved Potosi’s streets, fuelled the European Renaissance and helped fund the Spanish Armada that sailed against England in the sixteenth century. It is hard to believe this was once the richest city in the world. As the tour went on we all seemed to develop a conscience. To me this is a powerful example of dark tourism like a tour around a necropolis, or the Cambodian Killing Fields or Auschwitz. Tourists seem to be driven by some kind of sinister voyeurism or a taste for the macabre. I began to question what I was actually doing.  The line was being crossed between what was acceptable tourism and what was not. Is this actually cashing in on tragedy? Is death being commodified? (Well that’s another posting all together!)

Today Potosi is dying a slow death. Although this is the largest silver mine in the world, deposits are running out and the city’s 12,000 people have few other forms of income. The impact of this brutal mine on the local people is visible everywhere. Children as young ten work in the mine with a life expectancy of just 29. Adult miners work 10 hours days fuelled only by their bags of coca leaves. Two-thirds of the population have respiratory ailments. The infant mortality rate is 135 per 1,000 and more than 30% of the population are illiterate. Women and children beg daily on the streets. This is the lasting legacy of the Spanish colonisers who stole this city’s wealth and left it to die.

Miners shovel buckets of rock for upto 10 hours a day. Photo taken during my tour of the mine.

Miners shovel buckets of rock for upto 10 hours a day. Photo taken during my tour of the mine.

So is tourism actually a life line to this city? An alternative source of revenue? A source of hope?

Unesco is backing restoration projects for the city’s colonial buildings and is monitoring the conservation of the Cerro Rico as it is now a World Heritage siteI’m unconvinced.  Firstly because of the way that this form of tourism is operated. Miners are portrayed by tourist literature and western marketers as a primitive other and a throw back from a bygone era that can now be commodified. The story of human tragedy is being manipulated for profit. Secondly because Potosi is one of the most polluted places on the planet and the health ramifications are shocking.

It is worth examining the way that the media and tour providers portray miners in their literature. It soon becomes clear that imperialism is very much still alive here.  Descriptions of a ‘labyrinth of tunnels’ and ‘primitive tools’ and the opportunity to ‘step back hundreds of years’ dominate the tourist brochures. The promise of dynamite as well as ‘unforgettable memories of Potosi’s fortune and tragedy’ make the experience sound like it’s some kind of Hollywood blockbuster. 

 Lets not forget, El Tio, a kind of devilish goblin who lives underground and supposedly watches over the fate of the miners. Well he’s not been particularly vigilant with millions of miners dying over the centuries. Again this plays on the idea of primitive practices, superstitions and ‘mysterious’ folklore which legitimated imperialist ideology for centuries. There have been various films and documentaries made about the plight of these people. The Devil’s Miner  and Grito de piedra  are particularly chilling.

In my opinion the world acknowledges the past and present brutalities of this mine but nothing is done to put a stop to it. Eduardo Galeano’s (1973) ‘The Open Veins of Latin America‘ is a must read and powerfully sums up the wider debate about the imperialist legacy and the ongoing exploitation. It is an example of a very short list of investigative journalism to come out of Latin America. John Pilger’s (2006) ‘Tell me no lies’ places Galeano’s book in the wider theoretical context.

I regret paying my 210 bolivianos to go down the mine and see teenagers with blackened faces and mouths full of coca leaves struggling with their pick axes and shovels. My money went straight into the pockets of the tour operators who are owned by fat cats in the western world; the money is subsequently re-invested in advertising these kind of socially irresponsible tours which attract naïve backpackers like myself. The cycle keeps going round.  Romanticised images of the life of a miner, emotive descriptions of tragedy and courage and a play on the splendour and opulence of a bygone era – are all manufactured to bring in the tourists. Little if any of the money generated goes to help these miners. One last rant…the Lonely Planet is just as bad for recommending these tours and sending more hapless backpacker’s down the mines. 

So is tourism Potosi’s lifeline? I think not. It’s just imperialism and exploitation by the global north in a different guise. My next blog in this collection of posts focusing on Bolivia examines the environmental implications of Cerro Rico…


Imperialism lives on in many Latin American countries in their often uncomfortable relationship with the West. See here for a lively debate on the imperialist legacy. As my last post illustrates in recent decades indigenous communities have been fighting back. There has been a transition of leftist movements from the streets and into political office in. Indeed it was the power of local social movements which paved the way for Evo Morales, the first indigenous leader, to become president of Bolivia in 2005.

The question I pose is can countries like Bolivia, one of the most impoverished on the planet, ever break free from the legacy and scars, both physical and cultural, that colonial rule has imposed? See here for more on the imperial paridigm and how the developing world is combating it’s legacy.

The mined landscape of Cerro Rico, Potosi, 2007

The mined landscape of Cerro Rico, Potosi, 2007

Bolivia’s experience with the darker forces of globalization began centuries ago in Potosi, once the most opulent and richest city in the world. Today, it’s reduced to a  dilapidated town haunted by the imposing Cerro Rico and the lives it’s claimed. For nearly three centuries Spanish colonialists mined Cero Rico of enough silver to virtually bankroll the Spanish empire.

These colonisers left behind eight million corpses. Slave miners were sent into the pitch dark for as long as six months at a time. Many of those who survived went blind from re-exposure to sunlight. Others died from mercury poisoning whilst thousands were crushed to death because of shoddy safety regulations and a disregard for human life. For every miner that died there were ten more desperate to benefit from the silver rush even if it meant loosing their lives. Child labour was and still is commonplace.

The cruel irony is that Potosi was one of the largest single sources of mineral wealth in the history of the planet and yet Bolivia has ended up the poorest nation in South America. This kind of exploitation  lives on today. This time it is not the Spanish but the third world elite who are following in the footsteps of their colonisers in their relentless pursuit for wealth. Bolivia is still manipulated by the west.

This all sounds very opinionated and perhaps extreme. The truth is I have seen this all with my own eyes. I’ve been down the mines in Potosi, I’ve seen child miners as young as twelve emerging from 16 hour shifts and I’ve felt the wave of discontent and sheer desperation amongst miners. The saddest thing is that not much has changed for these miners over the decades. Apart from the arrival of the naive backpackers. 

This is the cruel and exploitative face of globalisation.

Cramped conditions in the Potosi mines (2007). The mask is to protect against aspesto. The miners couldnt afford this luxury.

Cramped conditions in the Potosi mines (2007). The mask is to protect against asbestos. The miners couldnt afford this luxury.

Since Cochabamba’s water war, the issue of water and access to it has gained attention on the international stage. Bolivia forced water privatisation as well as water scarcity onto the international agenda. Fortune magazine declared that water is the oil of the 21st century whilst Barnett (2001) anaylses the implications of these environmental securty threats. For many authors water scarcity is the proverbial spark that starts the metaphorical Middle East bonfire. In a region which is extremely arid, with existing ideological, religious and geographical disputes, combined with water scarcity, the result is one of the most volatile situations in the world. This begs the question – Is water a basic human right to be provided by governments through the public sector or is it a commodity to be sold by big business?

Whatever your view it is clear that water is set to be a major source of conflict across the globe. The environmental literature is replete with dire predictions of water wars. The water wars thesis is simple; water is distributed unevenly and, as population grows and the climate changes, it is increasingly in demand and will cause violent conflict. The potential for violence is extremely high as like most things, whoever control water wields the power. Bolivia has faced a series of crises over water and it is somewhat depressing to acknowledge that in the aftermath of the 2000 Cochabamba water wars, thousands still do not have access to clean water. The debate rages on…is water a commodity or basic human right? I think morally we all know the answer to that one.

So is conflict inevitable and perhaps exacerbated by the effects of climate change?

Barnett (2001) argues that the environment-conflict thesis is a product of the Northern security agenda premised upon geo-political issues. It is often only concerned with resources of economic value rather than the reality of environmental degradation and the welfare of those in the developing world. In other words the north constructs an eco-centric outlook of two worlds to suit its own agenda. The south plays the psrt of the primeval Other who needs the north to maintain order. Bascially the West just simply aren’t interested in the plight of Bolivia because it has no resources that they need.

However there is no escaping from the fact that in many area resource wars are a reality whether their seriousness is exaggerated by the West or not. Homer-Dixon (1991) contends that the geopolitics of environmental problems, their transboundary nature and the geographical misfit between resources and national boundaries,  means that sometime soon the North need to sit up and take notice. Many countries throughout Latin America are teetering on the edge of environmental conflict.

Water activists in Cochabamba 2000 - photo courtesy of http://www.xs4all.nl/~arenaria/water/Cochabamba%20pictures.html

Water activists in Cochabamba 2000 - photo courtesy of http://www.xs4all.nl/~arenaria/water/Cochabamba%20pictures.html

Resource wars and environmental conflict continue to ravage Latin America and Bolivia in particular. New social movements have emerged in Bolivia over access to basic elements of survival like water, gas, land and coca.  (See Olivera 2006) There have been numerous classes between corporate enterprises and indigenous communities for decades over resources. Benjamin Dangl (2007) in “The Price of Fire” examines Bolivia’s long on-going struggle against neo-liberal policies in more great detail.

The most famous ‘resource war’ is perhaps the Cochambamba Water Wars in 2000. This brought international attention to the country from anti-globalisation groups. The people of Cochabamba rose up when the multinational water company Betchel bought their communal and public water systems and hiked up prices far above peoples’ means. These increases forced some of the poorest families in South America to literally choose between food or water.

 Activists lead what was supposed to be a peaceful protest to remind the government that the people were still watching. The consequence was that Cochabamba turned into a war zone for two days as the government deployed the armed to silence it’s critics.  Images from illustrate the sheer power of the people. After a bloody stand off Betchel was eventually forced out, repealed the privatization contract and water was taken back under public control. See here for an interesting blog on the uprising.
It is an example of the failure of the nationalisation of a basic resource at its worst. The defeat of the America corporate giant is widely celebrated as the first victory against globalization in Latin America.
These water wars, like the Zapatista uprising, are a powerful example of a wave of grassroots mobilisation which sprung from the regions move towards democratisation in the 1980s and 1990s. See Murphyand Rodriguez 2006 for more background. Other social movements and groups against water privatisation emerged in the wake of the water war as new media spread the images and words of hope across the globe. A contract with the French company Vivendi was termininated in Argentina because the businesses performance wasn’t up to scratch. In Ecuador CONAIE set up its own water reform proposal focusing on community ownership. It’s an example of what’s possible through popular protest and media coverage. These kind of indigenous struggles are rarely covered by English based media. The water wars were perhaps an exception as they were pitted against an American construction giant. This water war inspired activists globally to resist corporate exploitation.
The privatization of water is a trend and a concern all over the world. Why was Cochabamba different? Why did Cochabambinos resist? Why did they win? The answer is simple. This wasn’t just a revolt against water it was a rising up against decades of dictatorship and corruption. The water wars were a clear rejection of neo-liberal economic policies and showed that the western market model did not belong in Bolivia.  People knew that if they lost control of their water they lost control of their lives. And they used the internet to get their message out to the world.
The official outlet from Bolivia to the world was reporting from the Associated Press (AP). Stories were written from La Paz and regurgitated the government line. The only international reporting directly from the scene was from Jim Shultz, executive director of The Democracy Center who calls Cochabamba home. He sent out 2,000 daily emails to press outlets and activist organizations recounting the revolt as he witnessed it with his own eyes. News spread rapidly across the globe and activists across the globe rallied in support. Activists as far a field of New Zealand took part in anti-Bechtel and anti-Banzer signs.
These under-represented and marginalised communities used new social and cultural spaces, opened up by globalisation, to get their issues heard. The democratic flow of information has been revolutionalised by new technologies likes the internet. (See Baraldi 2006) The water revolt drew broad international media attention as images from the uprising were beamed into screens and television sets across the planet. It went from being a local struggle to an international symbol of hope because of one man’s emails.
It’s eight years since the Bolivian water wars. Now water justice activists contend that poverty and political powerlessness are the main barriers blocking the access of the poor to water services. These problems are likely to persist whether the water company is publicly or privately owned. See here for an for an analysis on the lasting impact of the water wars.

Protesters against metal mining outside Quito - photo courtesy of google images
Protesters against metal mining outside Quito – photo courtesy of google images

Environmental concerns have become increasingly important within global security discourse in recent decades. (Spoor 2000 sums this up in an accessible way.) The 1970’s saw the emergence of the doomsday syndrome and controversial debates over the global crisis of environmental degradation. Rachel Carsen’s 1962 Silent Spring is a must read covering thje development of early environmentalism. The oil crises of 1970’s and the realisation that resource scarcity poses a serious conflict threat, coupled with the end of the cold war, raised environmental awareness on a global scale and initiated international concern about the political implications of environmental pressures.

There is a lively debate surrounding the environmental-conflict thesis as academic opinion varies across a wide spectrum with some alarmist predications of impending resource wars within and between nations, whilst others refute the idea that there is any significant connection between the environment and conflict.

Conflict over resources is not a novel concept, but focus is now directed towards renewable resources, such as water, cropland, forests and fisheries. Environmental processes do not necessarily respect any type of state borders. Homer-Dixon (2001) argues that water scarcity is seen by many as the great problem of the 21st century as 261 major river systems are shared by two or more countries. Gleick (1993)  suggests that conflict has and will again arise over renewable resources such as water.

In Latin America there is a whole host of conflicts over resources from mining to water. In Quito , Ecuador, there have been recent mass demonstrations against large scale metal mining as farmers and indigenous communities call for natural resources to be nationalised. These local farmers have been supported by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) which represents indigenous people in Ecuador. It is one of Latin America’s most powerful social movements and argues that access to nature and water is a fundamental human right. Natural resource exploitation has been an ongoing source of conflict in Ecuador from the oil boom of the 1970s to this proposed mining of copper, gold and silver reserves today. There’s a long legacy of pollution and disease caused by oil exploitation and mining. However, many of these communities remain powerless in the face of an Ecuadorian government desperate for foreign investment. They have attempted to utilise the media to get their message heard but firstly this a country where medis comes under state control and thus rarely challenges the status quo. Secondly, these indigenous groups cannot compete with the western news agenda which overlooks their struggle.

Peru and Guatemala face similar battles against mining as the devastation it has caused to both the environment and health of local communities is increasing evident. See this article for more on the struggle of anti-mining activists in Guatemala. In many developing countries like Ecuador it is the oppressed and impoverished communities who advocate sustainable development and protest for basic territorial rights. As depressing as it is to admit their struggle may be in vain if President Rafael Correa’s recent comments are anything to go by… “It is absurd that some want to force us to remain like beggars sitting atop a bag of gold.” Once again the basic needs of indigenous communities and environmental concerns come second to making money.

In the 1980s there was a definite change in communication theories in Latin America as a direct result of many countries moving from dictatorships to democracies.  These new theories are based on ‘culture’ and using culture to more effectively implement media development strategies (Murphy/Rodriguez 2006). This was the beginning of cultural communication as an integral part in development work. Indeed culture is not an easy word to define and academics have toiled with numerous definitions. See Eskamp/Swart 1991 for an interesting debate about its many meanings from a way of life to a way of co-operating. It has finally been realised that there must be an understanding of culture as rooted in an imperialist past if communication strategies are to be successful in today’s society.

And what about the video? A whole host of new types of small-scale media have come in to play as a facilitators for development – song, dance, music, popular theatre – but at the same time keeping the cultural identity of the local area intact. This type of media is used to explore local themes and inform. Themes include anything from lack of fertilizer and water to the disruption of polygamy. Local issues that affect local people.

The use of video tapes in Peru is a powerful success story and an example of this new paradigm. Unlike the mediums of print, radio and television, which are notoriously top-down, one way and imperialist forms of communication often controlled by governments or professionals (Baraldi 2006), video creates a horizontal communication flow and promotes dialogue within and between communities. Crucially it is participatory and a form of self-media where the interests of the programmes are centred on the receiver as a real person rather than just a ‘receiver’ or a statistic.

In addition, its different from television, (which is notoriously used to carry political propaganda and incite commercial concerns) because production costs are low, equipment is highly portable, it is technically easy, and allows immediate play back and thus immediate results. It is an autonomous form of media and thus is self empowering. (See Agunga 1990).

In Peru this paradigm was used to facilitate rural development and agriculture. ‘Campesinos’ turned development theories upside down and used video to educate development workers about their needs and lives. This was then used by the government to inform agricultural reform. This development project trained native technicians in how to use video to reflect the problems in rural Peru. See Epskamp/Swart 1991 for more on this. A holistic range of programmes were subsequently made and focused on the salient issues of agricultural production techniques and problems affecting the rural communities; from irrigation, potato cultivation, cattle husbandry, environmental protection to how to take better care of llamas and alpacas to improve quality of the wool. There were even courses in farm bookkeeping to help farmers improve their management skills.

So why did this scheme work where many others have failed in Latin America? The answer lies in the way that the video tape was used as a channel of bottom up communication about agricultural issues. The result is that there’s now a more integrated rural development policy and the government was forced to listen to the needs of the rural people. The government’s view of agriculture shifted. Whereas before it’s interest in farming was purely economic with a view of more production for the good of urban populations, it’s now accepted that farming is a way of life, the environment must be protected and sustainability is a serious concern. This shift in discourse was forced by campesinos who drive their own development.

This success in Peru in the 1980s has been been employed in other countries throughout South America. Emphasis is now on working with rural communities and building up a relationship of trust. ‘In order to believe that person he must trust him.’ Since the 1980s, video is regularly used as a feedback and evaluation technique with emphasis upon developing more effective agricultural policy. It’s now a tool for people without a voice to speak out.

One of Rio De Janeiro's 40 shanty towns. These shacks are precariously perched on steep mountain-side. Photo courtesy of google images -http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&q=rio+de+janeiro+slums&meta=&aq=f&oq=)

One of Rio De Janeiro's 40 shanty towns. These shacks are precariously perched on steep mountain-side. Photo courtesy of google images -http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&q=rio+de+janeiro+slums&meta=&aq=f&oq=)


I read an article this week in the Independent titled Rio tries to contain slums with concrete’ with utter disbelief. The Brazilian government has begun a ludicrous scheme to wall off the slums of Rio De Janerio to stop shantytowns from spreading. Outrageous was my first response to reading this first paragraph. As I read on the government minister behind this plan, Icaro Moreno, justified this scheme with more ridiculousness; this was all for the good of the environment, and more specifically, to protect the Amazon rainforest.

Brazil‘s National Institute for Space Research, which monitors forest destruction, reported in December that between 2005 and 2008, deforestation of Rio‘s urban rainforest had doubled as compared to the previous three years. About 506 acres were destroyed in the last three years. So the poor are now being blamed for the depletion of the rainforest as well as their impoverished situation? This kind of blame culture is exactly the reason why the rainforest is being depleted at rapid levels. No one is willing to take responsibility and blame is always displaced. Logging, drug running, unethical tourism. Surely these are much more critical causes of rainforest depletion than the development of marginal land by people who have no where else to live.

The most ironic and hypocritical thing about this latest strange project is that these 10 foot barriers, aimed to hem in the poor and further segregate them from rich suburbs, will cost 12 million to erect and will surround 40 favelas. 500 houses will be demolished to make way for this barrier in a with an already chronic lack of housing. 12 million pounds to trap the poor in and hide away an impoverished under class all in the name of rainforest protection. Outrageous.

Icaro Moreno, the planning minister behind this plan, said: “Each year that passes we’re losing more of the Atlantic rain forest, now we’re setting limits on where these communities can expand.” It doesn’t take a genius to work out what the real motives behind this shallow rhetoric are. Rio is a city of extremes, with rich neighbourhoods juxtaposed with shanty towns. Many of the slums are built on the steep mountains that surround Rio‘s landscape and look down on the wealthy, beach front areas. This is a scheme manufactured by the privileged so that they can more easily ignore the plight of millions of poor and enjoy the luxury of their swimming pools and mansions.

This barrier will divide the city further, exacerbate existing socio-economic problems and heighten segregation. In his blog, Portuguese writer José Saramago compares the wall to the Berlin Wall or the Israeli West Bank barrier, while other critics liken it to the wall between the United States and Mexico. Whilst Global Justice, a Brazilian human rights group, has likened this to social apartheid. Emphasis is not on solving the deeply engrained socio-economic problems of this city, but is on shielding the rich from having to witness them…and all in the name of the environment! This is ostrich politics at its worst.


Perhaps the real reason for erecting this cage to trap in the poor is, as the Latin American Herald Tribune suggests, to create a bullet proof barrier to protect the rich from the ferocious gun battles which occur on a daily basis between drug dealers and police. The president of building firm Ultra Greten, Pedro Moreira Leite, told O Globo newspaper that “Not even a rifle bullet penetrates those walls.” Still it seems blindingly obvious that this cage will not solve any of the problems it will just make them a little bit less visible to the Brazilian elite. The problems will not go away, they will just get worse.



Just think what this 12 million could be used for instead of a useless barrier. A third of Rio’s 6 million dwellers live in shantytowns. There is a chronic lack of housing. The city is rife with drug traffickers and drug related violence. Would this money not be better spent on addressing these widespread problems; food for the malnourished, proper housing and sanitation for the millions who live in squalor, creation of jobs, reduction of economic disparities, the development of a welfare state or adequate health facilities, bringing together of divided communities, deconstructing drug gangs and criminality in the favelas, and finally developing environmental schemes that will actually save the rainforest and it’s resources?



Whoever decides these planning policies needs to take a long hard look at the priorities of its nation, one which is an emerging world power and economic leader in South America. Barriers to hem in the poor should never ever be a top priority costing £12 million when there are so many millions of people living in great poverty and misery. The rainforest is important. I am not questioning that. What I am questioning is why the environment is being used as an excuse for unethical and imperialist planning strategies for the benefit of the rich minority at the expense of the poor.

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