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.