Cerro Rico, a mountain that eats men

Eduardo Galeano had described its fate very well in his book ‘Open veins of Latin America‘: “The city which has given most to the world has the least”. It is a perfect example of European greed, the start of capitalism and all the consequences that came after. While reading this book, I felt like I became more aware of the whole situation Latin America is struggling with. Afterwards, I felt determined to see this place with my own eyes. Although, as I came closer, I wasn’t sure about its kind of tourism and if I was even physically able to visit it. I’m talking about Potosí, or better, Cerro Rico. The mountain filled with rich minerals towering behind this former prosperous city.

Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world, located at a nominal altitude of about 4100 meters above sea level. It was founded in 1545 by the Spaniards. Cerro Rico (or ‘rich mountain’) stands out in the background. This mountain tells the fate of the city and all the people (who are used to) working and living here. Today the mines in Cerro Rico are still active, but aren’t profitable for huge scale mining anymore. The conditions people must work in haven’t changed much in recent times.

While I visited Potosí, I felt hesitant about visiting the mines. For one, people are working in the mines under hard circumstances, while I’m watching from the sideline. Secondly, by participating on a tour it might be stimulating for these practices. Thirdly, the mine is located 4300 meters above sea level. At this altitude, with even less oxygen available inside the mine, I didn’t even knew if I could handle it physically. On the other hand, by participating on the tour, you are contributing to the miners as well, as a portion of the incomes will go to them. Also I didn’t want to turn a blind eye on a controversial situation that is actually still happening. The results had been highlighted by Andre Gunder Frank in analyzing ‘metropolis-satellite’ relations through Latin American history: “The fact that the regions now most underdeveloped and poverty-stricken are those which in the past had had the closest links with the metropolis (the capital or chief city of a country or region) and had enjoyed periods of boom. Having once been the biggest producers of goods exported to Europe, or later to the United States, and the richest sources of capital, they were abandoned by the metropolis when for this or that reason business sagged. Potosí is the outstanding example of this descent into the vacuum.”


The wealth that flowed to Europe was enormous as Galeano notes: “Silver shipped to Spain in little more than a century and a half exceeded three times the total European reserves, and it must be remembered that these official figures are not complete”. But not all of the money went to Spain, far from it actually. “There was a sharp European struggle for the Spanish trade, which brought with it the market and the silver of Latin America. A late-seventeenth-century French document tells us that Spain controlled only 5 percent of the trade with ‘its’ overseas colonial possessions, despite the juridical mirage of its monopoly: almost a third of the total was in Dutch and Flemish hands, a quarter belonged to the French, the Genoese controlled over one-fifth, the English one-tenth, and the Germans somewhat less. Latin America was a European business”. The expression ‘vale un Potosí’ (“to be worth a Potosí”) meaning “to be of great value” is still in use today.


With that much wealth hidden inside the continent, Europeans were seeking for new approaches to extract it as fast as possible. “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, (..) signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation” Karl Marx notes in Capital. To be able to continue the mining operations under the same inhumane conditions, several leaders of that time declined to recognize the “degraded men” of the New World as fellow humans. Father Gregorio: “They are lazy, they do not believe in the miracles of Jesus Christ, and they are ungrateful to the Spaniards of all the good they have done them”. Not recognizing ‘these people’ as fellow humans, had consequences for neighboring Paraguay centuries later. In 1957, Paraguay published a notice informing all the judges of the country that “the Indians, like other inhabitants of the republic, are human beings”. This was necessary because, as later, revealed by a survey: eight of the ten Paraguayans think that “Indians are animals”.


With that thought (“Indians are animals”) in mind, same horrible practices are possible to continue. Simply by degrading human beings. In the beginning of the 17th century it was reported to the Council and the King that: “the poison penetrated to the very marrow, debilitating all the members and causing a constant shaking, and the workers usually died within four years”. But in 1631 Philip IV ordered that the same system must be continued, as did his successor later on.

Right before we entered the mine, we had a quick peek from Cerro Rico overlooking the city of Potosí.

Having absorbed the information above, the significance and horrors of this place lingered in my head when the tour started. Before entering the mine, we visited a little shop where you can buy soft drinks, coca leaves, alcohol (96%) and even dynamite for the miners. These contributions allow them to save some money. Considering this, most miners are actually happy with tourists visiting.


Beforehand, we were told to follow the instructions of the guide as perfectly as possible. Thin tunnels have no room for more than a single rail. Mining carts will go with high speed over those rails. With each cart weighing 2-3 tons, it’s easy to be permanently injured if one of those carts hit you. This meant we were often in the mine. At an altitude of at least 4300 meters and little oxygen inside, fatigue strikes fast. Inside the mine we got more information from the guide about the history, which was mostly similar from what I read in Open Veins of Latin America. But seeing people work under these conditions was still hard for me to grasp, as I already felt exhausted by running some small distances. It is legal for children from the age of fourteen to work in those mines. We came across a boy who was eighteen years old and had been working in the mine for already four years. La Mina del Diablo (The Devil’s Miner) is a sad but great advisable documentary, which tells a similar story about the daily life of a young miner. Eating inside the mine is not a possibility either. There is a risk of eating dust, which will greatly infect your body. This is why most just chew on coca leaves inside the mine. This improves their energy, rises their oxygen and decrease their sense of hunger.


Although not hugely profitable anymore, Cerro Rico still operates. After the government turned its hands of Cerro Rico, some private companies now control the mine. The miners are self-employed and pay a fee for entering the mine. Because of the poor economic state many are in, having to provide for family and having possibilities earning more than three times the nominal salary, people still choose for the mines. They seek great fortune and protection by worshiping El Tío ‘Lord of the Underworld’. Inside the mine you can find many statues of him. Accompanied by many cigarettes, coca leaves and alcohol as offerings to keep El Tío satisfied.


After being inside the mine for two-and-a-half hours, I could finally see daylight again. I felt relieved by being outside. At the same time, I couldn’t even grasp the idea that this is for many people a 40-hour working week (if not more). What toll would it take physically and mentally, if this was your fate?


I think Eduardo Galeano describes this fate at best: “Potosían society, sick with ostentation and extravagance, left Bolivia with only a vague memory of its splendors, of the ruins of its churches and palaces, and of 8 million Indian corpses. Any one of the diamonds encrusted in a rich caballero’s shield was worth more than what an Indian could earn in his whole life under the ‘mitayo’, but the caballero took off with the diamonds. If it were not a futile exercise, Boliva -now one of the world’s most poverty-stricken countries- could boast of having nourished the wealth of the wealthiest. In our time Potosí is a poor city in a poor Bolivia.”


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