When I first heard that in Potosi there are organized tours allowing visitors to see how miners work, my first reaction was “Why? What do tourists do there, take pictures?”
At first thought, to be very honest, I was sickened that people do this. Imagine a group of gringos who are dressed in protective clothing, rubber boots, helmets and headlamps, which by the way are all likely better than the equipment the real miners are wearing, coming into the mines to take pictures and then getting back on the bus to continue their travels. It sounds so wrong. And then I heard that people bring gifts for the miners, such as dynamite, cigarettes, and coca leaves. “Is this to make the tourist feel better?” I wondered.
Jason felt differently than I. He really wanted to experience the mines and argued that it helps the miners when people visit. It gives them supplies that they desperately need, which is true. Further, it is an educational experience to be there and to truly know how atrocious the working conditions of the miners are. I reluctantly agreed to go because in all honesty, I still thought it was wrong. Right up to the moment when I entered the dark side of the archway that led into the mine, I did not want to be there.
As we walked deeper and deeper into the dark tunnel, I began to breathe heavily. I felt the dust in the air and could not catch my breath. The bandanna covering my nose and mouth was no match for the millions of dust particles fighting their way into my windpipes every time I inhaled. We were only a few meters in when suddenly, I wanted to be there–I wanted to see more, despite my labored breathing.
We continued into the mine crouching and dodging our way around wooden boards and low hanging rocks. Our guide Ronald allowed the group a few rests as he educated us on the history of The Candelaria Mine and gave details of a miner’s work and life. He told us that miners usually die of silicosis after ten to twenty years of working in the mines. They know the dangers that exist, but there are no other job alternatives in Potosi; the mines are the economy of the city. They do it to feed their family, explained Ronald. He also told us about El Tio. When they enter the mines, miners believe they need to worship the devil. They give El Tio offerings to keep them safe from accidents and they ask him to give them quality minerals. Every mine has a statue that represents the devil, he continued. My skin crawled.
As he talked to our group of five tourists (three Americans and two Australians), a miner walked by and Ronald engaged him in conversation to further educate the group.
Talking with a Potosi Miner
Guide: What’s your name?
Guide: How old are you?
Guide: How long have you been working in the mines?
Miner: Eight years.
Guide: How late will you be working today?
Miner: Until about 6pm, a total of 10 hours.
We gave Fausto some coca leaves and a pair of leather gloves. Even though our guide instructed that we only needed to buy some dynamite kits, refreshments, and coca leaves, Jason and I decided to buy some protective gear for the miners as well. We bought five pairs of leather gloves along with a sophisticated mask to give to one lucky miner. This was my way of making me feel less guilty for visiting the mines.
A Scary Moment in Cerro Rico
Once everyone had a bit of a rest, we were told we would move on to the second, third and finally the fourth level below us. We all followed Ronald. Tourist groups spend a large part of the tour crawling on hands and knees over hard rocks that jam into your skin while maneuvering through the dark cramped tunnels. Often, we had to climb down or up poorly rigged ladders which made it very dangerous for everyone. Our headlamps lit the way. One occasion, I lost my footing and slid ten feet down a black passageway. I bounced into the rock walls from left to right like a pinball making its way down an arcade machine. There were only a few scrapes and bruises, but it was one of the scariest ten seconds of my life. El Tio must know I did not want to come, I thought.
My initial thinking was that mining should not be treated as a tourist attraction. After being a part of a tour I realized that although people did take pictures, most of the tour was educational and serious. We spoke to six different miners, asking them the same questions and gave them all the dynamite kits, soda, and coca leaves that we purchased at the miners market earlier in our tour. Overall, it was an overwhelming, emotional and once in a lifetime experience to say the least. I am glad I went. There is a world of difference between hearing about how the miners work and actually going into the mines to feel yourself inhaling rock and mineral dust.
However, I still have an unresolved ethical conflict with mine tours even after I experienced them first hand.
First, tourists feel the need to take pictures and I am not completely convinced miners want their pictures taken. Our guide repeatedly encouraged us to take pictures of the miners working and sweating in the dark dusty tunnels. He was reassuring us that it was okay with the miners that their pictures were being taken. From what I could gather, the workers did not seem very thrilled about this. The cooperative miners are not paid on an hourly basis, they are paid on the quality and quantity of the minerals they extract and we are likely a distraction. I did not ask any miners specifically if the pictures bothered them. This is just my interpretation of their body language, although when they were asked by the guide how they felt about the tourists being there, they all smiled in approval. Perhaps banning pictures in the tours would make me feel better, I’m really not sure.
Second, only a few miners benefit from the tour visits. To maximize safety, the tours only visit a small part of one particular mine. I completely understand and agree with this practice. However, there are currently about twelve thousands miners working in over a hundred active mines at Cerro Rico, the mountain which dominates Potosi’s skyline. In our van there were a total of seventeen tourists broken up into three groups. All three groups visited more or less the same miners and gave them all gifts. It would be great if more miners could benefit from the tours being conducted. I do not have the solution as to how this would happen, but I am trying to think of one.
Third, at the end of the tour there was a dynamite demonstration for the tourists. I will admit it was shocking and somewhat exciting to hear and feel the force of the dynamite exploding but the delivery of the demonstration was sensationalized and felt like a spectacle too soon after a very somber experience. Our guide even egged us on to take pictures with the live bomb. I refused but others did partake in the fun activity.
Lastly, I understand that the mines are the sole livelihood of the men in Potosi. I understand that charity is not an answer and maybe the only thing that can change the miners’ destiny is creating a different economy in the city or something equally drastic. Can visitors do more? Is being aware of the miner’s horrific working conditions or creating awareness all we can do to make a difference?
Again, I am glad I decided to go, however I realize that nothing has changed for the miners. They did show their appreciation for the gifts we brought, but the tour bus still rode off away from the mines with our protective clothing and bright headlamps. The miners were still left behind in the dark with toxic dust breaking down their lungs. These tours change nothing for them and we tourists should not make pretend it does, even if we did bring them supplies and refreshments.
Visiting the Cerro Rico Mines
If you decide to take a mine tour during your visit to Potosi, Bolivia, I suggest that you buy a little more than refreshments and dynamite kits. One protective mask costs about 50 Bolivianos ($7 USD) or perhaps some leather gloves, which are 10 Bolivianos ($1.5 USD) a pair. These will not change the destiny of the miners, but at least they protect them a little bit more from the toxic dust while performing their life’s work.
A friend (and mentor) continues to remind me, “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I do not believe the tours are changing the conditions of the miners, but for those tourists who choose to visit the mines in Potosi, I guarantee something in you will change after this experience and the miners will appreciate any gift you bring them. The tours are not perfect but perhaps they are still good, I will leave it to the tourists to decide.
If visiting Bolivia is not in your current plans but you are interested in learning about the Potosi mines, I recommend the touching film “The Devil’s Miner,” where a fourteen year-old boy tells the story of his life as a Potosi miner.