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Ethics of Tourism: Mines of Potosi Bolivia

Potosi Bolivia

Potosi Bolivia - Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia

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.

Potosi Bolivia

Potosi Bolivia - Cerro Rico Candelaria Mine Entrance

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.

Cerro Rico

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.

Potosi Bolivia

Potosi Bolivia - "El Tio" - Devil Worshiped By Miners

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.

Potosi Bolivia

Potosi Bolivia - Shop at Potosi Miners' Market

Talking with a Potosi Miner

Guide: What’s your name?
Miner: Fausto.
Guide: How old are you?
Miner: Twenty-nine.
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.

Responsible Travel

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.

Potosi Bolivia

Potosi Bolivia - View of Cerro Rico From The City Of Potosi

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.

Potosi Bolivia

Potosi Bolivia - Cerro Rico Looming over Potosi

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

Potosi Bolivia

Potosi Bolivia - The Devil's Miner Movie Cover

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.

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Drew Weselak says:

Well things haven’t changed since 1990 when I did the tour.
When we visit these place we are already aware of the emerging economy (3rd world) status. We will argue with our personal demons about the rights and wrongs but there is one thing I have learned from my Potosi adventure. I will never again look for the things that I don’t own. I will wake up every day and feel blessed by all the I am able to. From sunrises to the color of my fridge. Nothing gets past my gratitude for all that comes my way each day. Be it a little or a blessed multitude.
There are atrocities from blood diamonds to oil pipelines. Police fraud, government coverups and on and on the world turns.
Why did you go to Bolivia when you probably already know about the poverty? When I made plans to go to Bolivia I had not a clue of what I was in for. I knew nothing about it except the Legend of Butch Cassidy and Sundance. I am very happy to have had that education. It has, and continues to remind me……
As for the pictures. I am glad I have this wonderful picture of this worker who stood so proud for the pose. I feel his life each time I visit it. I know that he knew that this was his way of being remembered and somewhat eternal.
If each person who lives in comfort and takes it all for granted was to make a journey such as this, the world would truly be transformed. For me it acknowledged the importance of giving to charities. A gift for the betterment of the world. My trip to Potosi taught me more in 2 days than all of my years of life.
As we who have visited already know. Someday someone will blast a cap and that whole mountain will crumble and change things.

Marlon says:

Wow! I never knew that place existed until now. Thanks for sharing Aracely!

Scott, I “toured” Cero Rico in
1974 with woman friend and her
teen daughter. I looked up my 4
typed pages from journal of that
event, which I could FAX if appropriate.

Scott Montgomery says:

Hello all, I am currently writing a piece of creative nonfiction about the mines in Cerro Rico and am interested in asking a couple of questions to people who have visited the mountain before the 1990s (I am investigating how and when tourism in Potosi began and how it has changed since then). If you have visited these mines long ago I would very much like to ask you a couple of questions

Drew Weselak says:

Yea, I visited in 1990 and the blog article pretty much went exactly as mine did. Down to the explosive ending.
Feel free to contact me.

The creepy thoughts of this being voyeurismoccured to me too before entering the mines. I also had to give my own reasons for wanting to see it a second thought. But all in all, I think tourism is positive for Potosi. And even for the miners. The tourist industri gives them, their relatives and their kids a second option, cause let’s face it: The people in Potosi don’t have as many career options as we do. Our guide, Julio, was 12 when he started working in the mines. Now he works as a tour guide. The guy who served me coffee later in the day, Roberto, used to work in the mines. Now he works in a café.
I personally didn’t feel any unwillingness from the miners about having their photos taken (and I took about 400 exposures in the mines).

Jason says:

Thanks for sharing your experience Gjermund. We only have 2-3 pictures, we just couldn’t take them after seeing the dire conditions. I think your right, it’s another option, but in order for it to work, they do need to be benefiting all the miners. Hopefully they won’t have to mine someday. Thanks for visiting our travel blog.

Peter Clay says:

Great post, really felt that I was in the mines with you! A lot of academics talk about tourism as a concept moving into the 6th stage which is Ethics and that sustainability is not enough, that we have to now travel ethically. I suppose another way to look at this is as tourists is if we choose not to go down and instead opted for a tourism product/industry that the local people can get involved in that provides more economic/social benefits as opposed to mining e.g ecotourism/accommodation providers etc in a more sustainable way – then eventually one day the mines may shut down. However it would have to be at the locals choice and not at the tourists – such a fine line. Just to get my geek on, if your interested in reading a bit into the philosophy behind the authenticity in travel and why we as travelers try to get into the psyche of the ppl we visit check out a guy called MacCannell (1989)

Jason says:

Peter, thanks for sharing that information regarding ethics. I do agree, we need to travel ethically, but I have to admit it’s a challenge. It’s hard to know what is ethical and what is harmful. We visited many poor places where the gap in our wealth made me uncomfortable. I would say to myself, “We are helping by being here. They are opening a business where I can spend my money and they can make a living.” Then I have to question whether or not that job is good for them. Is it destroying their traditions, culture and old languages? It’s almost a never ending spiral of questions to determine if it is ethical or not.

I don’t believe there is a glaring answer, but rather an individual decision we each have to make based on our own judgements. I wish it were easier.

Wonderful article, Aracely. I can feel your gonflict and really appreciated your honesty about the inner struggle. These things are often uncomfortable, but when you think about the changes going on around the world simply because the issues have been brought into the light of day via the internet, it’s possible that tours and articles like these will have far-reaching effects in the long term.

Jason says:

Thanks for commenting Barbara. I would have to agree with you in light of everything that is going on around the globe in regards to people organizing. The power of the Internet is far reaching and influential.

Many travelers visit a new location vastly different from their own. We discover things that don’t seem fair, just or even safe. Now, we have the power to do something by simply writing about it. This power can be greater than we have ever imagined.

lara dunston says:

Great post, guys! I did this tour 17 years ago. It was a half day tour then and we went to all levels and we spent a lot of time wriggling like snakes through some tunnels barely wider than our body. One member of our group had to return as he almost got stuck! I regretted going at that point – it was frightening, as I know you now know it was – but I was glad I did as I was able to feel a fraction of what the miners must feel. At the end of the tour over beers all travellers in our group said they felt a lot more empathy having done the tour, and that’s what these tours should be about.

I don’t have issue with photography, as long as it’s discrete – over the years I’ve talked to many people on the other end of the lens and a lot have admitted if they were tourists they would do the same thing. If you’re a writer/photographer covering it for a publication or blog and you let people know they mind less as they understand that you’re sharing their story with the world. We always find it’s how you take the photo, not whether you do.

What I do have a problem with – like you – is how the miners benefit from this, aside from greater awareness being raised. Like you, we also took dynamite etc that we gave to miners we met. I’m surprised that in these days of ‘responsible tourism’ that they haven’t developed fairer ways of distributing gifts among workers. I’m also curious to know whether the tour companies are giving something back now? (They weren’t when I went – there was no such thing as ‘fair trade’ or ethical tourism in South America then). These days I would expect the companies to donate a % of their profits to an association for the miners or a fund that pays for their lunches or helps support their health care, etc. Do you know if they’re doing anything?

Jason says:

We went with the most well known company, Koala Tours. They claim to throw a big picnic for the miners and their families once a year, using 15% of their profits to do so. I saw no proof of this and unfortunately we will never know what 15% of profits is and how its used. A picnic to me is not where the money should be going. Supposedly, this is the most reputable company and does hire ex-miners to run the tours.

Aaron says:

What an interesting and scary experience! The ethical issues that you raise apply to many tourist attractions we encounter as travelers. Much in the same way that I feel awkward going on tours to visit minority villages…I feel like it’s a show put on for the tourists. This experience seems a bit similar to that.

Jason says:

Yes Aaron, it is. I always here both arguments. It brings economy to an area that didn’t have it, but it also damages an area and culture. It always a difficult decision, and you never know what the right answer is.

I visited potosi just over a month ago. Speaking with the manager from the tour company we used in was interesting to see how tourism is helping the city and miners. Visiting te mines is an incredible experience and really quite touching. I like tothink that our presence is giving something to the local people, something they would not have had. Yeah, I’m sure their is the potential for some travellers/tourists to be invasive but I feel the benefits of promotoring tourism far outway the negatives. Thanks for the post, you got me thinking now!!!

I recently had a similar experience cisiting the families that work and live in Central America’s largest landfill. Taking photos of 11 year old kids working in the dump was tough, but I did it anyway telling myself that sharing awareness of the situation was worth it.

But was it really?

Jason says:

The questions that we constantly ask ourselves, and probably never know the correct answer too. I think we each have to chose what we think is best in our own opinion. So if you decided it was a good idea, then it most likely was. The main thing is that you thought about it, and that matters.

Tony says:

The tour into the Cerro Rico mines remains one of my most memorable experiences after about four years travelling and living in South America. It’s a haunting experience, and the images of the tour really imprint themselves on your memory. I watched a father and son hammering away at the mine face, driving a metal rod into the rock so that they could slide in a stick of dynamite. The son was about 13 or 14 years old. The father looked like he was made out of blackened bronze, one of the toughest looking men I’ve ever seen. There was something almost mechanical about him as he hammered away, completely ignoring us interlopers.

I would never tell anyone not to do the Cerro Rico tour, but it is a demanding experience both physically and mentally. If I remember correctly, the tour I went with gave a percentage of their earnings to a miner’s fund, and the guides were former miners themselves. That seemed to be a decent arrangement. Buying dynamite, coca leaves etc helps the miner’s financially, but I really like your idea of buying gloves and masks.

Jason says:

Thanks for sharing your experience Tony. Yes, the tour guides were former miners and our tour company contributed to a fund that through a party every year for the miners and their families. I don’t think that is the best use of their money, but it’s what they did. It is a physical and mental challenge.

Diana says:

Between this and Christine’s “Sh*t I didn’t do in Thailand” post, I realize I have a lot of thinking to do when it comes to ethical traveling. Goes back to childhood when your parents and teachers used to ask, “If everyone jumped off the cliff, would you?” I don’t know why that question doesn’t get asked more when it comes to tourist attractions. It should. Great article!

BTW, where did you get the items for the miners? Was there a store outside of the start of the tour?

Jason says:

There is a miners market lined with vendors selling all the miner supplies, mostly soda and coca leaves. If you participate in one of the tours, they will allow you to spend time here to purchase supplies.

In 1975, two female friends and I (also female) were among the first women to takea tour of this mine, largely against the wishes of the miners who thought women were bad luck.

No gifts, but we gave small amounts of money to the miners we spoke with. No photos.

Our transport was an “elevator” — small square wood platform with no sides, cable in a hole in the middle.

Equipment for us tourists was better even then than what the miners had.

Change comes slowly, if at all.

Jason says:

It must have truly been a unique experience for you girls. Thanks for sharing this with us and the readers. It puts it in perspective that even then, your equipment was better than theirs. Change is slow there, if it comes at all.

Wow, this was fascinating. I had the same feelings you did when I was taken to a silk factory in China. I just remember being so confused and not wanting to go. But in the end, I had joined a group as a solo traveler and didn’t want to get lost. And that impact wasn’t nearly as dramatic as this one. Thank you so much for sharing.

Melissa says:

Aracely, like you, I am torn. Before *every* decision I have to make in my life, I ask myself if I am helping or causing harm. It’s often pretty easy to figure the answer to that question out. On this issue, I am truly stumped. It’s certainly been my experience that a lot of tourists can use the notion that they’re “helping” when really, they’re just curious or perhaps even *morbidly* curious. My partner and I went on a favela tour in Rio and for us, it was amazing. It broadened our perspectives, and we got to see a school that is built and maintained using the money from the favela tours. But still…..I don’t know how I would feel if *I* lived in a favela, and tourists came to my neighbourhood to take pictures, so that they could go back to their comfortable lives in a developed country and show their loved ones the deplorable living conditions that exist in my part of the world. I honestly don’t know how I would feel. While I loved the favela tour and am grateful for the learning that came from it, I am also aware that there is a chance that my learning and my expanded perspective *could have* come at the expense of someone else’s dignity. It’s a tough one, forsure. I love, love, LOVE this entry. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Andreas says:

Great post Aracely, world sometimes is unfair.

Matt Wilson says:

Interesting read and I am torn as it seems are you.
So sad about the health risks. Again poverty causes premature death in workers.

Lets hope that if enough people hear about these conditions something will get done.

Thanks for sharing your experiences.

I saw this through Cathy Browns Tweets

Audrey says:

I know we talked a lot about the mine tours and the ethics of this during the time we shared driving around northern Argentina. It’s a really difficult ethical question and one without a clear black or white answer. Like you, I was glad that I went on the tour because I don’t think I would have really understood what their work and life was like without experiencing the dust, shortness of breath and chemicals myself. And, I knew what we were experiencing was the easy stuff since we only went a couple of levels deep while miners were working many levels below us in much worse conditions. While on our tour, we met a 12-year old kid who was in the middle of a 14-hour trek. That was heartbreaking – as we talked to the guide and other locals later, he probably doesn’t have a choice because he is responsible for supporting family (like in the movie Devil’s Miner). As you said, the miners don’t want charity and are proud. But, what is a shame is that there are usually no other economic opportunities in town to offer alternatives to young people.

Like you, the dynamite explosion at the end of a sobering and educational experience really bothered me. But, I did feel that the tour did a good job otherwise providing information and an understanding of the history and present situation of the mine and city of Potosi.

Aracely says:

Thanks for the comment Audrey. I am glad we didn’t see a kid working that day. My brother is 14 and that would have been really heartbreaking for me, as I know it was for you. I agree with you and I did mention above that most of the tour was done in an educational and serious manner, but for me that’s just not enough. It could be the best conducted tour in the world. The miners are still not benefiting much from them. That is my big issue. I hope your visit to the US is going well. Jason and I miss the times we shared with you and Dan in northern Argentina!

Fida says:

I feel the same as you. It’s a dilemma that I often face when traveling. If I go I feel like an intruder, if I don’t, it feels like I don’t want to see the ‘real’ life. I agree that gifts don’t change anything. Why not ask for an entry fee that goes toward better protective gear or living conditions down there? I don’t have the answer either but coca leaves for a few or awareness alone doesn’t change a thing.

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