At an elevation of over 13,400 feet(4,070 m), the cooperative mines of Potosi are one of the highest in the world. Cerra Rico, the “rich hill” of silver, has been mined for over 470 years.
The mountain is riddled with more than 180 separate mines, leading to ongoing calls for safety and warnings that the mountain will collapse in on itself at any moment. But as long as there are extractable minerals, workers will risk cave-ins, deadly gases, and silicosis to earn a living. On any given day, approximately 5,000 miners are working the mountain.
In recent years, tours of the mines have become a popular side business. Over a dozen tour operators have sprung up to guide the inquisitive traveler and adventurous tourist through the working mines. Make note: this is not museum tour; this is not a safe demonstration space; this is a first hand experience of an extremely dangerous occupation. In a side conversation one of the tour guides admitted that five miners died last week.
A typical tour begins with a stop at the miners market, where you can purchase your expected gifts. You then continue to an ingenio, or first stage smelter, where the minerals are extracted from the composite ore through a flotation process. Although it was silver that made Potosi a thriving Colonial town, it now only accounts for 1-3% of the extracted metal. Cerra Rica now produces more zinc (6-7%) and lead (4-5%). Overall, the extracted rock is about 85% waste material.
The guide explains that the floatation process uses copper sulfide and cyanide to separate the metals from the ground rock. The guide does not mention the environmental cost of using such chemicals, but the observant tourist can deduce that there isn’t much of a reclamation process going on to keep the chemicals from leeching into the soil.
After the ingenio, the guide leads you through a typical mine for about an hour. No safety railings, no emergency lighting, and nothing but a handkerchief to keep from breathing the silica dust. We lost a quarter of our group when we descended a claustrophobia-inducing steep shaft to the second level that you had to negotiate on your belly. Those folks returned to the surface to breath fresh air.
The deeper we descended into the mine, the hotter it got and the thicker the dust in the air. As we stopped to observe a miner hammering a dynamite hole, I was wheezing so hard I couldn’t catch my breath.
As it happened, I toured the mine on a Saturday when there was a big football (soccer) match, and most of the miners had taken the day off. This actually minimized the dust, noise, and danger, but also limited my exposure to seeing the work in progress. Even so, I quickly had enough and was happy when we turned around and headed out.
My friend and colleague (a Bolivian historian) had taken the Spanish language tour while I had gone on the English one, and when we were reunited on the surface, we compared notes. It was clear that Gabi had gotten much more factual information from the assistant guide on her tour than I had from the guide on mine. Was it simply a language barrier or was something else going on?
My tour was clearly crafted for the “experience” of touring a mine, and for that it was quite successful. I will never forget the smell, the heat, and the difficulty breathing. The cursory explanation of the mining process was correct, but lacked any contextual explanation to place it in historical or technological context. It was a missed opportunity to open up questions about labor practices, economic drivers, and social structure. I was left wanting more.
But where there is want, there is motivation. Perhaps the next time I pass through Potosi, I will bring something more than dynamite and coca leaves to the miners. Gabi and I are now working on a grant to provide a solar-powered shower for the miners to bring some dignity to one of the world’s worst jobs.
For people who want to do more research on the mines, check out the Servicio Nacional de Catastro Minero (SENCAM) at the archives in Sucre. They will have cataloged the notary collection related to Potosi mine claims (1880-1997) by the end of the year. An interesting preliminary result is documentation on women mine owners.