By Caroline Kuritzkes
To its core, Latin American identity is laced with the extraction of natural resources. From the Spanish exploitation of indigenous labor in encomienda systems to the United Fruit Company’s “banana republics,” depletion of raw materials has often come at the hands of Western imperialist forces and American corporations, and at the expense of the masses. Perhaps a contentious case of this phenomenon today is the Cerro Rico silver mine in Potosí, Bolivia—a once-treasure-chest-now-turned-graveyard that stings of the nostalgia of former wealth. From its “discovery” in 1545 through the early 19th Century, the name Cerro Rico, or “rich hill,” was certainly fitting. At its peak, Potosí was the wealthiest city in the New World, generating 2 billion ounces of silver and flaunting higher populations than contemporaneous Paris and London.
That was centuries ago. It didn’t take long for the Spanish crown and colonists to exhaust the silver supply they so desperately desired, at the cost of millions of lives lost to coercive labor practices. The Spanish soon turned to tin and other mineral deposits hidden within the Cerro Rico mines, but Potosí never quite resurrected its colonial splendor.
Today, unlike the mine’s silver reservoir, Cerro Rico’s abusive labor structure is far from obsolete. In place of colonial viceroys stand conglomerates such as COMIBOL, the Bolivian Mining Corporation, while cooperative workers have replaced the indigenous and African American slaves who once perished in this “mountain that eats men.” It is estimated that from the 16th Century through the present day, 8 million miners have died in Cerro Rico. The mountain’s unexpected avalanches, dynamite mishaps, and hidden chasms kill an estimated four miners each month, and those who are fortunate enough to evade these dangers still face the likely prospects of contracting silicosis, a fatal, incurable lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust particles over time. Almost all of the miners eventually die from the illness at age 35 or 40, or after about 10-15 years of working in the mines.
I was lucky enough to visit Potosí in July 2013 and take a tour in one of Cerro Rico’s 20,000 mining tunnels. Now, traversing Cerro Rico with a group of gringos to witness the daily lives of these miners was certainly a problematic and wacky kind of tourism. The owners of various mining cooperatives believe that tours increase company revenue, though it is likely that the bulk of the tour proceeds stay within the managers’ pockets. As a result, the miners themselves have no voice in the policy, and are forced to contend with flocks of Westerners who pass by, stare, and take pictures. The miners probably consider these practices dehumanizing and distracting to their work, and a part of me could not dispel the guilt I felt as an active participant, complicit in this system. Yet despite my unease, this learning experience was absolutely invaluable.
Our tour started at the mouth of a tunnel and progressed downhill and inward, toward the mountain’s core. The moment you enter the mine, you are immediately enveloped in a damp blackness; you can feel a thick dust and a sulfur-like smell filling your lungs, making breathing extremely uncomfortable. The dank air is oppressive. I wore a bandana around my mouth and nose in a feeble attempt to block out the dust, which I soon learned was close to impossible. I could only wonder what it must be like to inhale this poison 10 hours a day, six or seven days a week. Eating in the mine would cause the miners to inadvertently swallow enormous quantities of dust, so instead they drink juice and chew coca leaves, which quell hunger, alleviate exhaustion, and sustain the miners throughout the workday. Oddly enough, the temperature fluctuates between extreme heat and cold, depending on your location in the mine.
These conditions seemed otherworldly to me, and they are indicative of the egregious health and safety hazards the Cerro Rico miners face daily. Moreover, the “cooperative” system is a blatant misnomer, considering that the 15,000 workers are barred pensions, health benefits, and insurance, earn significantly less than their bosses, and are paid according to the value of their pickings, rather than an hourly wage. A miner’s profit is just as much subject to chance as his fate, and nothing is guaranteed except an inevitable expiration date. Even so, thousands of workers – including children as young as 14 years old – face no other alternative in Bolivia’s depressed economy. Pawns of an exploitative labor institution that has persisted for centuries, they glean the few precious resources the Spanish forgot to rob, intent on survival until the mountain consumes them.
Caroline Kuritzkes ’18 is in Ezra Stiles College. She is a beat blogger for the Globalist Notebook on Latin America. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.