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Cerro Rico


The Cerro Rico silver mine in Potosí, Bolivia was the source of much Spanish wealth after the brutal colonization of the Americas. Although the Incas engaged in some small-scale mining there, the Spanish opened the modern mine in 1545, using it as one of their prime sources of money to kill Protestants in Europe. The Spanish enslaved indigenous labor to work the mine, as it did throughout its colonies. The mine was incredibly rich, making Potosi one of the largest cities in the world by the late 16th century. It was also mined under brutal conditions, with workers dying like flies. Once the silver was mined, it had to be separated from the rock. This was done through the use of mercury. That took a whole other mine, the Huancavélica mine in Peru. The Spanish enslaved indigenous people for that one too. Conditions in that mine were so bad, with people dying of mercury poisoning all the time, that parents would disable their kids to keep them out of mines. People would ingest so much mercury that upon their death, the Spanish would cut open their feet and drain the mercury out of them.


Eventually, the good silver deposits were mined out and the mine went into decline. But it is still mined today by the indigenous people of Bolivia, taking out the last dregs of silver. Young boys go into the mines around the age of 15 and continue working as long as they can before the sicknesses of mine work force them out, often in their late 30s or early 40s. After the silver corporations pulled out in the 1980s, cooperatives took over and there’s no regulation of the mine, meaning conditions are not much better than they were 400 years ago.

How do I know all of this? Well, you can simply go into Cerro Gordo. I was in Bolivia in 2008. And I went into the mine. The miners are happy to show you around. But it is hardcore. This is no tour for most tourists. You want in the mine, you’d better be prepared to drag yourself up the logs the miners use to get in and out of the mine. You had better enjoy breathing in the disease inducing dust that kills these people from silicosis. In this photo of mine, you can see the killer dust in the air.


I was coughing up dust for a day after just 90 minutes underground. Safety precautions for the gueros? Uh, no. The price of admission is cheap–a few bucks and buying some coca leaves and dynamite for the miners.


This was an amazing and horrifying experience. You walk through the tunnel leading into the mine–the same tunnel the Spanish drove the Inca into beginning in 1545 (at least they provide the tourists helmets, otherwise I would be dead from the 4000 times I whacked my head trying to get into it). And you enter into the hellish underworld of an actual working mine where the workers aren’t even trying to hide their poverty and short life spans. But what else do they have? Bolivia is a very poor country. There aren’t other jobs in the region. Potosí is in the desert at 13,000 feet. Other options are basically nonexistent. I have seen sulfur miners at work in Indonesia and that was a bit horrifying to watch, but this was as close to truly brutal work–the kind of work you just don’t really see much in the U.S. these days, although very much the kind of work foreign workers do to serve the needs of American consumers–as I’ve ever been. You can see the processing of the silver as well, which includes open vats of mercury. I could have stuck my hand right down in it had I wanted, as you can see from my photo above. At the end of the whole experience, they take you outside to blow up some dynamite. Which, well, why not.

Today, the mine is actually collapsing at the top from nearly five hundred years of tunnels and explosions
. These people, proud of the work even as they know it kills them, don’t want it to close. But if it doesn’t, potentially hundreds of people will die. It’s a terrible situation. But these people need work and it’s hard to blame them for resisting, even though it may cost their lives. It’s just horrible all the way around–a legacy of colonialism, a challenge of fighting poverty in the present.

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  • jim, some guy in iowa

    cut their feet open to let the mercury drain… jesus. and i have a better face mask to wear when i shovel the last corn out of the bins

    i wonder what the ratio of “practical” versus “frivolous” (by which i mean jewelry, maybe silverware and definitely investment) uses is

    • allium

      Here you go.

      tl;dr – as of 2013, about 50% industrial (including the rapidly shrinking photography sector), 25% coins and bars (showing a sharp rise after 2007), 20% jewelry, 5% silverware.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        thanks- i thought maybe the coins/bars % might be bigger. seems to me these kinds of small-scale mines that Erik is talking about probably supply a local craft-type market

  • Barry Freed

    That was truly horrifying. I wonder how much mercury you absorbed just standing near that open vat for a few minutes. I can’t begin to imagine what kind of levels the workers there have.

  • rea

    Like finding a bunch of descendants of Holocaust survivors forming a cooperative to run an old IG Farben factory.

  • DrDick

    For the poor of the world, there are seldom any “good” choices, but this is truly horrific.

    • Mike G

      I’ve seen footage of the sulfur mining in Indonesia, it’s equally horrible.

      • DrDick

        Yeah, I have seen photos of that as well.

  • nocomment

    Geez. Americans. are. clueless.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Expand on that a bit, maybe?

      • nocomment

        Well, yea, you know with regard to the way much of the rest of the world exists, or considers a “normal” or necessary lifestyle.
        Our lack knowledge, or even interest with the exception of who is next on the “to bomb” list is appalling.
        After thinking about it though one could likely make the case that the average person really is not interested in the next to be bombed list either.

        • mpowell

          Do you really think Americans don’t know about the miserable poverty in the world? I’m not sure what would lead you to that conclusion. Liberals tend to be upset about it. For conservatives, its evidence that the domestic poor are not so bad off. I don’t think either group is ignorant.

          Some people are convinced that the US is a major contributor to this type of poverty. And that’s a pretty important debate. But of course it’s been pretty much the norm since the introduction of agriculture so I have a hard time buying it. I’m not sure things were any better before, either.

        • Hogan

          Yes, if there’s anyone here who never gives a thought to Third World poverty and labor conditions, it’s Loomis.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      o hell yes. i’m as ignorant as the day is long

      i keep trying to learn- with any luck i’ll never know as much as you, though

      • nocomment

        There, there JSGII don’t take my general comments personally. You are very intelligent, knowledgeable, in possession of prodigious amounts of expertise and a person worthy of great respect.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          (laughs) you were more right the first time

    • Cheerful

      What’s your choice for the perceptive nation?

      • nocomment

        Hmmm, (sucks wind through clenched teeth) don’t know national motivations all that well.

        There does not exist a pure answer to that question. Judging by behaviors, don’t see Europeans all that anxious to intervene constantly. Nor China and Japan for that matter.

        Is that a sign of superior perception by them or national character or economic/military reality? Let’s face it, they have similar opportunities to intervene as the U.S.

        The U.S.has the economic and military power to move “great” ideas in a positive direction (Global warming, worker’s rights, women’s rights, environment).

        Successive administrations and, by extension, the electorate seem unable (or unwilling) to massively marshal resources except in the service of blowing people and shit up. Including our own citizens.

        Hopeful that evil is not the motivation (previous administration excepted). Though evil readily hitches itself to ignorance.

        Have to choose…clueless.
        /Lordy, this comment is too long./

        • LFC

          I would suggest that the present U.S. admin. has probably been pretty good on global women’s rights, decent if not great on global warming-related issues (given the necessity to bypass Congress), and probably only fair (if that) on global worker rights.

          But the idea that the U.S. does *nothing* abroad except drone strikes etc is silly. For one recent ex., the admin has, albeit belatedly, made a fairly major commitment on the Ebola crisis, proposing to use mil. personnel in a non-mil., humanitarian context and pledging a fairly significant amt of money, though no doubt more can be done.

      • Brett

        Bolivia’s got other natural resources. As harsh as those are going to be, it’d probably be preferable to this.

    • njorl

      Ah, but consider how ignorant these Bolivian miners are of how our wealthiest 1% live.

  • trollhattan

    Some trip. [Note to self: Do Not book any guided travel through Erik Loomis Exotic Adventures.] Have done the tourist gold mine thing in California, where they keep you away from anywhere dangerous but I still was creeped out. Spend my life there?

    Completely boggled at the conditions and the mercury-draining story. Given how common are the news stories, does Chinese coal mining have the highest death toll?

    • Barry Freed

      does Chinese coal mining have the highest death toll?

      Movie recommendation: Li Yang’s Blind Shaft which was shot in actual Chinese coal mines.

    • You aren’t coming on my Bangladesh factory death tour?

      • LFC

        Sign me up for that (though I doubt the B’desh govt would care for the name of the tour much).

  • Brett

    Man, the Bolivian silver mine. I remember Charles Mann talking about it in 1493 – it was a Murder Town even outside of the brutality that the local workers faced. There was a period where it had the highest wages in the world in the 17th century, not that that meant much when everything you could buy was ludicrously expensive.

    They’ve got a pretty labor-sympathetic President right now in Evo Morales. Sad that there’s nothing he can apparently do about this – even hiring them to go out into the salt flats and pull up Lithium would be preferable.

    • The day we drove up to Potosi, one of the big flatbed truck poor Bolivians use for public transportation went over the edge of the road into a canyon about an hour or so after we drove past. About 150 people died.

      Bolivia is a hard, tough place.

      • Barry Freed

        Oh that’s terrible.

  • Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoehenheim den Sidste

    I am surprised that no one has mentioned The Devil’s Miner which documents the life of a fourteen year old boy who works in the mine. It is positively the most disturbing movie I have ever seen.

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