We eat the mountain…and the mountain eats us.
— David, a mine guide and former miner in Potosi, echoes a decades-old sentiment about the city's lifeblood, its world-famous silver mines.
It was late morning and the sun was bright, the sky crystal at 13,400 feet in Potosi, Bolivia. We were being tended to by a group of schoolgirls dressed as nurses at a hygiene fair; they sought to teach us the methods and benefits of properly washing our hands.
The mood: uplifting and hopeful.
Contrast this with just the day before.
Profuse sweat and claustrophobia advanced as we crawled through tunnels well over 500 meters underground. Even with damp masks and bandannas covering our faces, we could barely breathe for all the dust and chemicals swirling from a nearby dynamite explosion just minutes before.
There, in the darkness of the Cerro Rico mine, a 12-year old boy was four hours into his shift. He had ten more hours to go.
The Miner’s Life
In the 500 years of Potosi's mining history, things haven't changed much for the average miner — the boy we met included. He was waiting, sweating; he wore a pained, exhausted look on his face. Practically, his day had just begun.
To make it through the workday, he filled his cheeks with large wads of coca leaves and chewed them as life force. The coca would lend him energy and curb his hunger, but it was clear it wouldn't fully counteract the stifling heat and lack of oxygen in the tunnels.
Although miners no longer die by the millions from mercury contact as they once did under Spanish colonialists, they virtually all die young — usually between 35 and 45 — of silicosis (black lung). David, our guide and a former miner himself, explained: “Nothing can be done once you have this [silicosis]. Even the best hospitals in Europe can do nothing to cure it. We know we're going to die young, so we want to make the best of what we have and enjoy life. This is why the festivals and celebrations here are so important to us. We give everything we have.”
Why live through such difficulty only to guarantee an early death? Miners are a proud group; they work hard and honorably in order to provide for their families. They'll take a gift of coca leaves, soda, or dynamite from tourists on mine tours, but they don't want our pity. They are motivated by the dream of striking it rich. Some work for private companies for a small salary, but most choose to work in cooperatives. Their hopes of finding valuable new veins of minerals and sharing directly in the fortune of their find are what keep them going day after day.
Our guide continued:
There was once a miner earning only $80 per month. One day he found a vein of silver. Today he is a millionaire and owns a football (soccer) team. The man we met outside? He owns 33 cars; he found a vein. After new veins of zinc were found in 2007, the Hummer population in Potosi increased by fifteen.
If you work as a truck driver or teacher, or in the factories you can earn about $150 per month. Police technically earn $150 per month also, but with all the bribes they get, it's much more. Same with politicians — they earn the most. But we all can’t be policemen or politicians. So, being a miner is the next best thing to support our families. There is always the chance to become rich if you work hard enough.
There simply aren't many employment options in a place like Potosi.
Question: If your father was a miner and died of silicosis at the age 40, who will provide for your family?
Answer: The eldest son, 12 years old.
Potosi Above Ground, Brighter
The following day, we took an early morning stroll around Potosi’s old colonial downtown. Hints of the city's former grandeur stood in its churches and homes — Potosi was once the richest and largest city in the world, besting places like Paris and London. Cerro Rico mountain – the one we'd been deep inside the day before — looms over a city now diminished.
During our walk, we intersected a group of Bolivian women and schoolchildren marching, advocating an end to domestic violence. Mixed and indigenous locals carried colorful banners and symbolic coffins. Now this was interesting and different. We followed them to the main square where the march merged into a hygiene fair run by teachers and children from local schools.
After watching us with curiosity, a group of young girls mustered the confidence to invite us to their booth for a lesson. One by one, each girl stood tall and recited her segment: the importance of cleaning and disinfecting one’s hands, how to prevent dengue and yellow fever, and why clean water is a necessity for a healthy community.
Their body language and the confidence and pride that resonated in their voices gave us a lift.
Upon leaving, a group of boys from another school surrounded us. When they found out we were from the United States, we were barraged with a series of questions for over 30 minutes: “What is the White House like? Have you met Barack Obama? Do you know Michael Jackson?”
In this interlude, hope sprang eternal.
The kids at the hygiene fair – for all the maturity of the messages they delivered — were still allowed to be kids. How different their lives are from the 12-year-old miner we'd met the day before. And how different the lives of working kids are from the childhoods we have known.
Where were you when you were twelve?
Taking a Potosi Mine Tour and Tour Ethics
As with any tour that features a real-time view of difficult circumstances and human suffering, tour detractors argue that the experience amounts to paying to watch people suffer.
We believe the value of the experience (for you, the miners, your readers, etc.) depends on how you approach the tour. If you are going to view the miners as you would animals in a zoo, then we advise you not to go. If, on the other hand, you understand that the people you'll meet underground are human and their lives are made of decisions as serious as the ones you believe you face (more perhaps?), then the tour will be worthwhile. You'll have an opportunity to see and feel the mines firsthand in a way that no film or video experience can deliver. It may affect you profoundly.
Potosi Mine Tour Recommendations
- Watch the film Devil's Miner, a terrific, heart-tugging documentary told almost exclusively in the voice of a young boy who works in the mines. If you plan to take a Potosi mine tour, we recommend doing the tour first, then watching the film. Both of your experiences will be the better for it.
- Potosi mine tour operator: We opted to go with Koala Tours. Given his level of English, our guide was able to answer our barrage of questions about life in Potosi and in the mines. Cost: 100 Bs ($14.50). Many guesthouses also offer tours for a bit cheaper, but just make sure your tour company has a good safety record and contributes something to the miners they visit.
- Dealing With Altitude: Potosi is supposedly the highest city in the world at 13,400 feet (4090 meters) above sea level. To battle altitude sickness, we suggest moving slowly, drinking lots of water, and chewing coca leaves. If you still feel bad, consider taking Diamox (altitude sickness medicine).
- Accommodation: We stayed at Hostal La Casona in Potosi. 80 Bs ($12) per night for a double room with shared bathroom. They have free wi-fi internet. On par with most places in Bolivia, the breakfast is mediocre. Address: Chuquisaca 460
- Transport: You can get to Potosi by bus from almost any spot in Bolivia. Guesthouses will sell bus tickets for select times, but we found that it was just as easy to go to the bus station fifteen minutes before departure time, buy the ticket ourselves and use the savings to buy snacks for the ride.
14 thoughts on “Potosi, Through Children’s Eyes (Where Were You When You Were Twelve?)”
We didn’t make it to Potosi when we were in Bolivia but we heard a lot of stories about the mine tour. I agree with your view on how one should mentally view the tour. I wonder, though, how much of the tour money goes to the miners. Do you have any sense on how much of that money trickles down to them?
Shocking … so much around the world needs to be done to improve worker’s rights and Occupational Health and Safety … as a former employee in the OH&S field, this post moved me especially!
@Kyle: I can’t imagine that much money in aggregate makes its way to the miners. We remember hearing something like 10% of the tour proceeds, but we have no proof of this. And in addition to what we bought for the miners as gifts, our guide himself bought a few bags worth of items (drinks, dynamite, coca) as well. Regardless, the economy is such that even if 100% of the tour proceeds went to the miners, it wouldn’t significantly change lives. The most important point – to us at least – is to view the tour seriously should you decide to take it.
Five years ago I was in Potosi en route to the north of Argentina. I was in the town in the midst of political excitement: the presidential election was one month away. I spent a full day debating with myself whether or not I wanted to visit this mine. I had read about it’s dark Colonial past and was familiar with the hardship that it had brought the workers in this area for generations. But I also knew that the economic situation throughout Bolivia was dire and that working in the mine, especially through a cooperative, was a potentially stable income. I knew that Potosi had once been a thriving, lavish, and prosperous city. It was hard to imagine.
I decided to take the trip after meeting with a representative from a “tour company” (you know what I mean, the companies being small and local enterprises) and discussing what the tour actually meant. Although she was getting my dime, I believed her when she told me that the miners appreciate people who come into the mines, bringing gifts of cigarettes, coca leaves and alcohol. Not only do they get these highly sought-after gifts, but they have a chance to interact with the foreign community and expose people like me to the realities of their daily hardships and triumphs.
The images of the mine still linger vividly in my memory. Watching holes blasted into the wall with dynamite and men hauling tools and earth that are elsewhere moved by machines was a picture of the shocking reality in Potosi. Unfortunately, this kind of hardship and poverty is not unique to miners or those living only in Potosi. Bolivia has struggled to right herself, in many ways since the Colonial era. It is a country rich in resources yet it reaps very little of the economic benefit. The elite in the country and the outside world continue to exploit the land and people, leaving very little for those not already on top.
A final comment, within hours of leaving the mine, I was stricken with a terrible, phlegmy cough that lasted for more than a week. I did not wear anything over my face (bad choice), like nearly all of the miners, and my lungs suffered the immediate consequence. I was in the mine no longer than one hour. As you wrote, children as young as 12 work 14 hour days.
For a while, I worked on a matter related to coal mining in the United States and learned so much about mining in other countries, as well. In the U.S., we have incredible safety equipment, support structures to prevent falls, yearly checks to prevent silicosis, asbestosis, and other diseases, as well as a federal agency that just focuses on mine safety and a huge mining union. That being said, mining is still a hazardous occupation.
When I first started learning about mining in other countries – especially Bolivia, Colombia, South Africa, and China – I was appalled to read that the miners wear basically no safety equipment, don’t carry back up oxygen, etc. But, like you say, in each of these countries (including the U.S.), mining is often the best option for a person in certain areas with limited education. Most miners I met in the U.S. were proud to have this occupation because it provided a stable income for their families and occasionally lead to great wealth. I don’t pity miners anywhere for the choice they make — regardless of the age they are at — because I would probably do the same if the choice was between starvation and food. What worries and irritates me is that the mining companies show little responsibility in these countries and could provide safety equipment for the miners if they were pressured to do so. The equipment exists to prevent black lung disease – it just isn’t being provided to miners in poorer countries.
@Myriah: Even with protective gear (we both had two masks), we were still coughing up stuff and our lungs felt tight for about a day after we were in the mines. And we were only underground for 2 hours. I really can’t imagine what it’s like to be even deeper for up to 14 hours.
You bring up a very interesting point – Bolivia’s wealth in minerals yet rampant poverty. Everywhere you go in Bolivia there is some sort of mine or deposit of a valuable mineral, but regular people never seem to benefit. First it was the Spanish colonialists and then foreign businesses – people still bring them up as reasons why the country is poor. But now, all mining companies are Bolivian owned; more and more are becoming nationalized and owned by the State. Yet, no one we spoke to in Bolivia seems to think this is going to benefit the miners or the rest of the country. Wealth will still stay in the hands of an elite few (including corrupt politicians). Like with many countries in Africa, Bolivia has the “minerals curse.”
@Akila: Thanks for sharing your experiences of mining in the US and abroad. I knew that mining in the US was not completely safe (i.e., you still hear of mining incidents in West Virginia), but I figured the technology used to protect miners was moons better than in places like Bolivia.
Our guide explained that there are private and state mining companies that do provide equipment (probably not as good as in States, but at least everyone has some protection), social security, regular hours and a steady paycheck. But, most people in Potosi would rather work in cooperatives where each miner is responsible for his own gear (or lack there of) and sets his own hours. I asked the guide (yes, I’m that annoying person on tours who always asks questions) to explain why people prefer working like this to the safety of a private/state company.
He went on that when people work in cooperatives, they are more independent and reap the rewards of their work. They usually have a team or group leader, but the person can set his own hours and schedule. Most importantly, the miner gets to keep what he finds (or what his team finds). This is when the guide told us about the miners who went from rags to riches by finding a new vein of minerals. Everyone wants that chance to strike it rich so they take the risk of working in awful conditions instead of taking a steady paycheck and more consistent protection.
And, when you do strike it rich, the social norm is that you to keep it for yourself – buy fancy cars, build new houses, buy a soccer team, etc. No one expects you to better conditions for the other miners or invest in trying to make lives better for those still working down below.
I believe this is one of the reasons why conditions haven’t improved in the cooperative mines. Once you strike it rich, you’re out of there.
@unbjames: The reality in many parts of the world is that occupational safety isn’t even part of the vocabulary, unfortunately. It’s considered a luxury. The trick is finding a balance so that workers are protected, but the local company doesn’t go bankrupt in the process. Thanks for your thoughts and perspective.
Excellent article. I agree with you that going to these sites and raising awareness is very important to help change people circumstances. When the world is informed, great things can happen. If you visit places like this and write about it, you are doing a very good thing.
I applaud all of your work that you do to let us know about the plight of people in developing nations.
It is amazing the resilience that people have when faced with a difficult life. I feel that I could never survive, but then again, when you don’t have a choice the human mind and body is amazing.
I saw a young boy carrying cement in Agra India the other day. He was covered in dust and the load on his head looked so heavy. My heart broke. I wish that all children could have the chance to be children like the ones that you met at the hygiene fair.
I like to think that things are slowly changing.
With people like you out there raising awareness, maybe things will change just a little bit faster.
Thanks for always posting such inspirational pieces.
I feel naive in commenting on child labor or mining conditions. I just wanted to thank you for such a comprehensive article. Your site always sheds light on not just the fun side of travel, but the social and political conditions.
@Dave and Deb: We do know some people who did not go on the mine tour out of the principle, but our experience shows that the best way to understand the real life situation or plight of people is to see it and experience it yourself. The same goes for a place like Burma.
We do hope that writing about issues like this will put a personal face on these issues and countries around the world that usually get forgotten. If more people care and have a personal connection, maybe something can be done. We can hope.
@Nomadic Chick: Thank you for including this article in your weekly round-up and for your kind comment. One of the main reasons we travel is to learn about the world firsthand and find out what life is like for regular people. We hope to share a bit of what we experience and learn through this website.
This is sad but makes you appreciate what you have.
@JD: Sad in one way, but uplifting in another. I suppose that’s why we chose to contrast the kids in the mines (who are in their own way uplifting) with the girls teaching us how to wash our hands.
You are right though — bottom line: appreciate what you have.
that good article. I really like the comparison of children in mines of the people. There are big differences and thoughts, as well as the quality of life and suffering to achieve a dream that the end is survival. In my 12 years studying and I think it was the only one in my mind, well played and was happy
This is a very informative post. Thank you for sharing. I’m considering visiting Potosi when I’m in Bolivia in October. I’m not sure whether to go into the mines though. Aside from feeling claustrophobic, as you say, I don’t want to pay to watch people suffer. But, at the same time, I feel like it’s important, when you travel to a new country, to gain insight into the lives of the people who live there – and not just the ones you meet every day in a tourist capacity. I hope that the boys in that mine benefit, if only a little, from the money, gifts, and perhaps even the interaction with visitors.