Anti-mining activsm


As well as great human suffering in Potosi, and Bolivia as a whole, the environment has paid a heavy price for centuries of mining. Potosi is now one of the most polluted places on earth! The water, the air, the landscape…things that we in the West take for granted as a fundamental human right…are toxic here.

The water is choked with lead, cadmium and arsenic that have leaked out of the mines. Running water is tinted grey. The pollutants have inevitably entered the watershed causing health problems for the wider community and the presence of heavy metals in crops downstream. This resulted in considerable damage to the region’s agriculture. This is because there is no effective mine-drainage treatment system and environmental-law enforcement has been cavalierly disregarded for decades. All eyes are on the profits.

Silica dust in the air causes blackened lungs and silicosis. Few miners live longer than 20 years after starting work in the mountain. Health care, just like environmental law, is nonexistent here.

The mountain looks devastated like its people. The surrounding landscape is still dominated by the imposing shape of Cerro Rico as well as a strange yellow and orange tint. That is the colour of toxicity. There are heaps of slag and shavings dumped all over the hillsides have created toxic mounds of contaminants hundreds of feet high. The holes of dozens of air shafts and the entrances to the mines pockmark the mountain face whilst the scars of deforestation and the resulting landslides are everywhere.

Money and economics are the only things that seem to matter here.

Until investment is put into the local community and the environment both will inevitably deteriorate further. The government has vowed to implement remedial action to combat these  problems. These are empty promises. Nations throughout Latin America have been left with ravaged landscapes, polluted crops and extensive health problems because of a long history of irresponsible mining practices.

This brings me back to our basic rights as human beings. Surely clean water and clean air for these impoverished miners is the least we can do? Basic rights not commodities!

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.

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.