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The Potosi Mines of Cerro Rico- A Dark Heritage

Updated on October 30, 2013

Potosi, once a glorious city located south west on the Andes of Bolivia impacted me in a way I can hardly describe.Its grim history reminded me of the worst of human nature: the exploitation of human lives and land resources.

The town looks and feels like any other Bolivian town of the Altiplano or high planes. The altiplano cities are high up at 4000 meters (~13,000 feet), green leafy vegetation is scarce, the cold never leaves, the cities have a gray color in its everlasting winter. Potosi is on the edge of the altiplano 49 miles from Sucre.

The rest of Bolivia is quite different. Descending from Potosi to Sucre (2810m) crossing the Pilcomayo River you find yourself in a different country, green with vibrant colors, bright white walls and the sun warming. Even the people are different, the altiplano habitants have an ingrain resentment to foreigners, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. But definitively does not feel welcoming. Across the river however in the warmer climate people are joviant smiling and glad you are visiting their country.

Maybe its history has much influence in their psyche. Potosi was founded in 1545 and it was the source of the Spanish wealth in the Americas. Its Cerro Rico, produced enough silver to finance the entire Spanish empire.

Cerro Rico


City of Potosi.

Potosi, bolivia:
Potosi, Bolivia

get directions


Mita Exploitation

Well before the Spanish arrived to the shores of South America the Incas ruled the Andes. Its source of wealth was the bottom-less pits of the Potosi mountain. Under the imperial rule the districts surrounding the empire were indebted to the ruling party, and in a form of indenture servitude they were to send males between the ages of 18-50 to work at the mines. Workers were allowed to return to farm their own lands the rest of the year.

Colonial Exploitation

During the Spanish occupation of South America the mines became the center of attention of the Spanish crown- the center of its wealth. To work the mines, the spanish kept the mita system with 13,500 indigens being forced to work. However, the new owners were more ruthless, they changed the working conditions , now the workers were required to pay for their own food and living expenses, and the pay was so meager that the workers were always in debt.

The mita were not allowed to leave the mines until all debt was paid. Most of them were not able to go back to farm their own lands. Also, the spanish increased the number of districts where the workers were recruited from. As a result, most of the surrounding areas were drained of able bodies to work the farms. Starvation and disease set in. The indian population diminishes to unrecoverable levels.

The spanish facing with dwindling work force starts importing African slaves. At its hay day the population of Potosi grows to 160,000 rivaled only by London and Paris.

During the colonial exploitation, in 1550, the silver recovered totalled 65,000 lbs. In 1592 production increased to 500,000 lbs. The Spanish built hydraulic mills to grind the ore and their own house of mint in 1753 (La Casa de la Moneda). The silver was minted into coins with the Royal seal before sending it overseas to spain.

Bolivian Flag
Bolivian Flag | Source

Private Sector Exploitation

After independence in 1825 the mine's production decreased and eventually not profitable. Twenty-five years later the mine was reopened for the extraction of tin. Giving the area the economic jolt it needed.

Here my information becomes sketchy since limited information is available on how the mines became privatized. There were three mayor industrialists in the tin mine business: Aramayo, Patino y Hochschild.

I couldn't find anything online about the exploitation of the workers during the ownerships of these tin magnates. I am assuming that profit took precedent over the health and well being of the workers. An occurrence not unlike today's. It is said that Che Guevara formed some of his socialists ideals from seeing the worker's conditions at the Bolivian mines. The owner's became some of the richest people in the planet until 1952 when the "revolucion" came to pass and the Bolivian government nationalized the mines.

Are the mine workers better off

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Self Exploitation

1952- social unrest leads to social reform. Bolivia's government nationalizes the mines and gives the mines to the workers. The consequences of the fervent work of the socialist ideals? The mines prior to 1952 were the economic backbone of Bolivia, making the country wealthy and corrupt. The wealthy got richer on the backs of the poor resulting in social unrest. Revolts fire up all over the country and the poor conquer. The mines are given to the poor. The poor form conglomerates and association for the operation of the mines- they name it COMIBOL. Perfect world, finally justice for the poor!

COMIBOL owns the Cerro but licenses its operation to cooperatives and a handful of multinationals. There are 35 cooperatives owned and run by Quechua Indians. The government is not involved in operations or safety.

16,000 workers continue to work the mines for themselves. Miners complain that the association keeps all the money for themselves. Production is minimal, Bolivia is now the poorest country in South America (although other factors contribute to this, like the territory lost to Chile, Brazil and Peru, it is evident that its natural resources in the past played an important part in boosting the country's economy). I would love to read reader's comments here on other factors that contributed to the economic downturn that befalls Bolivia as well as comparison of today's Bolivia with the era when the mines were profitable.

Today's working conditions of the mine? life expectancy is around 40. With no new equipment mining is done the old fashion way with picks, hammers, shovels, and brute strength. Rail carts are the ones left from the private era, old and worn. No lighting inside the cave, no piped-in oxygen, no geologic engineers to determine safety of collapse risk.In other words no OSHA. So little can be removed from the mine by hands and pick that the wages garnered hardly sustains a family.

So what is it like to work for themselves?

In the words of one of the miners;"There is nothing for us, just for the bosses. We work like mules, like slaves" - This is why I named this section: self exploitation.

Bolivian Timeline

Inca Empire Rules
Spanish conquer Bolivia
Simon Bolivar liberates Bolivia
Social Reform- nationalization of mines

The Water Engineer

In every world there are the hard working guys and then the smart guys.

Have you heard the story of the water engineer?

A small town needs water, pepito and Juanito look at the problem and see a great opportunity. Pepito gets a couple of buckets and runs to the well, he works all day and night carrying water over to the town for profit. Makes a good living and he is content. Juanito instead goes to the bank, gets a loan, hires some equipment and starts drilling trenches and installing pipe from the well to the town, now he delivers water to each house in town for a profit. He hires a manager and takes long vacation to the beach. Pepito is out of the job and goes to work at Juanito's Water Industry.

In Bolivia, the Smart guys are no longer mining, they employed themselves with touring companies and are conducting tours of the mines for profit. They make more on tips than they could ever with a full day's of work.

Here at the foothills of Cerro Rico is where I met someone like Juanito. I was traveling through Potosi on my way to somewhere else. I had a stop over, so I read on my lonely planet (traveling bible) that the thing to do was to take a mine tour.I decided to stick around a few days to see the sights.

The Tour- A First-Person Account

Knowing nothing else about the history or the conditions, I contacted the tour agency and they told me that Juanito would pick us up from my hotel by 7:00 am. I did not know what to expect so as always I brought my mind wide open.

Juanito stops us first at a local spot to pick up our safety gear. We play dress up and end up with blue overalls and a hard hat. Then he starts pushing his sales pitch, we need to purchase gifts for the miners, not mandatory but under his watchful eye you are shamed into buying. He showed us bags of coca leaves and lime, he asked us how many bags we would like to take. We said 1 bag he looked hurt and gave us a comment "well that is too little but its ok". I held the urged to feel obliged to buy more bags or the need to explain that as a backpacker my gift giving is limited. I let it go and off we went to the Cerro.

We arrive to El Cerro Rico.

From the outside it looks like a barren dirt hill. We drive up to a shaft opening and we see some of the miners working outside. Four miners pushing a loaded cart to a rubble mound and unloading its content; a lady worker sweeping the dirt from the entrance and two men with shovels in their hands sorting through the rubble. The cart pushers go back into the shaft with an empty cart.

First thing I noticed is the sharp contrast Juanito creates with the background. Juanito is sharply dressed: polished shoes, black slacks, black turtle neck, suit jacket carried on shoulder, fancy watch, rings and an outgoing personality. As Juanito changes into his safety gear he explains he is an ex-miner. He used to work hard day after day barely making enough money. He couldn't buy nice things. He now conducts tours. He makes more money per tour with tips than he ever saw working the mine. He says there is a few Juanitos like him conducting tours but not many.

I wonder if he is resented by his peers when he goes underground with his "rich" entourage. I wonder how his "business" came about since there are so many Pepitos still working inside the mine and how come more of them don't follow Juanito in his enterprise since it is obviously paying off.

Potosi Mines workers above the ground.
Potosi Mines workers above the ground. | Source

Coca leaves are a natural energizer and hunger suppressant.

Their energy power is activated with calcium carbonate (lime).

The are chewed on much the same as chewing tobacco. stuffing numerous amount of leaves inside their mouth makes the worker's cheeks expand with time.

Loading up the mining cart.
Loading up the mining cart. | Source

I have never been to a working mine before so I am following along wide eyed. We follow through several hundred feet of rail tracks. We see another group pushing another cart coming our way. Our guide says "watch out" so we move out of the tracks and pin ourselves to the walls of the shaft to let the workers go by with their full cart.

We keep walking down the corridor. We arrive to what it looks like the end of the shaft, however there is a visible worn path to a second chamber. An improvised step up made up of timber lassoed together with rope ending in a small opening. The timber looks like it is as old as the Incas, the rope barely holding it together.

Is it safe? with a heighten sense of adventure the question poses little weight. We keep going to the end of the corridor he tells us we are on the second level underground and asks us if we would like to continue to the third level- sure, why not?

Potosi mine worker with a mouthfull of  coca leaves
Potosi mine worker with a mouthfull of coca leaves
Tree stumps holding up the ceiling of one tunnel
Tree stumps holding up the ceiling of one tunnel | Source
Tourist with safety gear climbing down the narrow holes connecting the underground tunnels.
Tourist with safety gear climbing down the narrow holes connecting the underground tunnels. | Source

We have to descend through a narrow hole step down over wooden planks until we are on solid ground, maybe a drop of 20 feet. He tells us that we are about 100 meters underground. Would we like to continue?- We look at each other: sudden realization that 100 meters of rock could cave down on top of us at any moment and a quick look back at the rotting tree trunks holding the shafts open- we decide to exit the mines as quickly as possible, please.

Another day at work at the Potosi mines.
Another day at work at the Potosi mines. | Source

Make sure to bring warm clothes!

The altiplano average high temperature is 15C (59F) with an average low of a frigid 0C (32F)

We start our ascend and he takes us to a special room inside the mine, a room dedicated to Pachamama's counterpart. There is a statue inside a small dug out in the middle of the room, the statue is white and has a larger than itself male organ. Surrounding the statue are all sorts of prayer paraphernalia, candles, flowers, etc. If Pachamama is mother earth this statue represents the deity of fertility, guarantees you a child- so our guide says. He takes out our gift and puts it down as an offering. He says for the incantation to work we can touch its phallus- no thanks but thanks.

We continue on our ascend we see more workers taking a break their cheeks are triple in size with the massive amount of coca leaves stuffed inside them. Our guide throws them the bag and now I understand why the small bag is a small gift. They all look like puffer fish our bag looks dwarfed compared with the amount stuffed only in one of their cheeks.

We finally emerged from the underground breathing easier.

After going through the mine it is hard to imagine that this mountain's belly has been dug out for over a thousand years by the same descendants of the powerful Incas. I doubt that it has changed much in appearance although they say the mountain is smaller in height today than it was during the Inca Rule. It is absolutely not safe to say the least, but it is an experience of a lifetime. Not many (if any) active mines allow tours inside their work area. That is not hard to understand, specially after watching the incredible rescue of the Chilean miners not long ago. Anything can happen underground so be aware.

Male deity of fertility from the ancient Incas deep underground.
Male deity of fertility from the ancient Incas deep underground. | Source

© 2013 TravelingCrab


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