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…

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