Before we descended into the mine, our mini-bus (or micro) dropped us at the local "miner's market" so we could buy sticks of dynamite, bags of coca leaves and a few 2-litre bottles of soft drink. These were gifts for some of the miners we were about to visit underground who still work the Cerro Rico — the famous mountain of silver that towers over the city of Potosi, located 4100 metres above sea level in the Bolivian Andes.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, the wealth that poured out of the silver mines made Potosi one of the largest and richest cities in the world. Prospectors, priests, merchants and adventurers of all stripes flocked from around the world to this jewel in the Spanish colonial crown, eager to share in the seeming inexhaustible wealth. Potosi was a city of ostentatious riches and insatiable greed. Some of the major city streets were, literally, paved with bars of silver. Elaborate churches and public buildings were erected throughout the city at great expense.
Today, Potosi is one of the poorest cities in the poorest country in South America. As our micro took a circuitous route through the narrow one-way city streets up towards the Cerro Rico it revealed a town that retains only the faintest aspect of its former glamour. Most buildings are in a state of disrepair, roads are potholed and in poor condition, public infrastructure is almost non-existent and the silver paving stones disappeared long ago.
In its heyday, the riches of Potosi were spirited away to help finance the heavily indebted Spanish empire. During the 17th and 18th centuries this wealth flowed in increasing amounts directly into the coffers of the empire's major creditors — Dutch and English bankers. It is no coincidence that England and the Netherlands subsequently became major colonial powers and were the world's first to develop industrialised economies. The immense wealth extracted from Potosi provided a significant portion of the capital necessary to kick-start the industrial revolution and the emergence of the capitalist system.
From Potosi's founding in 1545, colossal fortunes were generated via the forced labour of indigenous slaves at a frightful human cost. Potosi is the site of an immense genocide carried out against the region's indigenous peoples. In his book The Open Veins of Latin America, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano estimates that 8 million indigenous miners were worked to their deaths under the whip of their Spanish slavedrivers. The early capitalist development of the West is tainted with the blood of these millions.
Descent into the mine
There are still 12,000 miners who support themselves through working in the Cerro Rico; mining still remains Potosi's major industry. The big majority of these miners are of indigenous Quechan descent. Most of the pure silver deposits have been exhausted after 450 years of excavation. Today the workers mine for a composite ore containing tin, zinc and silver.
As we carefully made our way down the 40 or 50 metres to the third level of the mine I quickly felt myself begin to sweat as the temperature rose to a stifling heat. The air was thick with particles and dust. After only a short period underground I was finding it difficult to breathe. Our guide warned us not to suck or lick our fingers for any reason because of the trace elements of asbestos and arsenic present throughout the mine.
Eventually, asbestosis or silicosis afflicts every miner who works underground in Potosi. Few miners who begin working as young men can expect to live longer than 50 years of age. It was evident that safety precautions in the mine are largely limited to hand gloves and hard hats. None of the miners were even equipped with face masks to protect against the tainted air. There are no guard rails, no mechanical lifts and no doctors on hand. Injured workers are carried out of the mine by their co-workers.
The lack of mechanisation in the mines ensures that the work is back-breaking, labour intensive and harsh. Some miners are fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy themselves small mechanical hand drills. But for most, shovels, dynamite and hand picks are the near-antique tools of their trade.
The working conditions underground are both cramped and unhealthy. For over one-third of the short time I was down the mine I was either forced to bend over double or had to crawl on my hands and knees through narrow passageways. Yet most miners labour in these conditions for 10 hours a shift, Monday through to Friday. They work these long hours without a meal break. Instead, most chew large wads of coca leaves as a physical stimulant and a means to artificially suppress hunger.
All the miners in Potosi are organised into cooperatives and lease their respective sections of the mine from the government for a fee of 6% of their earnings. The mining companies that purchase the refined minerals excavated from the mine have no legal obligation to concern themselves with the well-being of the miners. Workers' pay is directly proportional to the amount of ore their cooperative supplies to the refineries.
The term "cooperative" does not mean widespread cooperation is encouraged between miners. Tragically, the cooperative system inexorably compels the miners into desperate competition with each other over the most productive areas. Our guide, a former miner, explained to us that fights break out between various groups of miners fairly regularly.
Members of the cooperatives are entitled to a government pension if they are badly injured underground. If they are killed at work then their immediate family is awarded this pension. However, the current legislation only covers actual cooperative members. It takes four years of working in the mines before a worker can purchase a stake in a cooperative. At any one time this leaves hundreds of miners yet to become cooperative members working without even the most basic guarantees of support in case of severe injury.
Furthermore, miners can apply for a government retirement pension if a doctor can certify that a miner has lost more than 50% of his lung capacity. But each miner can only be assessed once every four years. This means that a miner assessed to have, for example, only 55% lung capacity has no option but to work underground for a further four years before they can be assessed again. Meanwhile, their health deteriorates further.
The appalling working conditions and the precarious lives of the miners are partly the legacy of the 500 years of the slavery, colonialism and economic subjugation of Bolivia by the "civilised" West. This has transformed a nation rich in natural resources and products into a poverty stricken country. The predicament of Bolivia's cooperative miners is also the consequence of the harsh neoliberal policies implemented during the 1980s and '90s that effectively reversed the 1952 nationalisation of Bolivia's mines and threw thousands of former government employed miners out of work.
In recent years, a series of powerful social movements has developed in Bolivia, particularly among the nation's indigenous majority. This popular groundswell has developed as its goal the "re-founding" of Bolivia on the basis of social justice, dignity and equality.
This widespread desire for a different life culminated in the election of radical indigenous President Evo Morales in December 2005. In his speech to a mass mobilisation in La Paz on October 12, Morales told the crowd that "here our struggle has historically been against the neoliberal model, against a system, and I want to ask all of you, together, united, organised, to finish off this economic model that has caused so much damage to the country, and of course to all the working sectors".
The dreadful working conditions I witnessed in the Cerro Rico speak eloquently that although the old system of forced labour no longer exists, working people in Bolivia are still enslaved by an economic system that continually dehumanises and devitalises them. Only the elite minority who currently benefit from this system could deny the right of the Bolivian people to struggle "to finish off this economic model" once and for all. But for this just struggle to succeed, solidarity from around the world is becoming increasingly necessary.