Musto’s Column

European Colonialism: The Potosí Mines

Marcello Musto

The wealth of Potosí   in Bolivia first became known  in Europe in 1545, when a group of Spanish conquistadores settled there to exploit the treasure preserved in its subsoil. The city grew enormously, so that eighty years after its foundation it was the largest and richest in the Americas, its population of 160,000 larger than those of Paris, Rome, London or Seville.

Its fame travelled the world. It has been estimated that some 50,000 tons of silver have been extracted from its veins–enough to build a bridge all the way to Spain. It had the largest silver mine in the world, producing huge quantities of the metal that were carried by llama train to the Chilean coast and shipped in the holds of Iberian galleons. For the gentlefolk of Potosí everything was made of silver, and the name became a byword for luxury: ‘it’s worth a Potosí’ (that is, worth its weight in silver), wrote Miguël de Cervantes in Don Quixote. The indigenous communities were reduced to slavery, however, and, when the inhumane conditions began to kill them off in their tens of thousands, the colonisers imported new slaves from Africa, more than 30,000 of them. The total number who died in the mines cannot be precisely calculated. But what is sure is that ‘European civilisation’ spelled pillage and genocide.

After two centuries of exploitation, the silver began to run out; those who could leave Potosí and the whole area fell into oblivion. In 1987 the city was declared a UNESCO heritage site, but–as Eduardo Galeano wrote in his Open Veins of Latin America–all that remained were ghosts of the wealth of yore.

In the streets of Potosí you are aware of its frame at every turn, its presence today, at just under 4,800 metres, as disturbing as its history. This is the Cerro Rico, the man-eating mountain. Its imposing bulk, reddish and pock-marked, is strewn with tiny human shapes hurrying to pierce it again and with trucks making their way up and down to carry away its most valuable rocks.

The upper part of the city is where the workers are concentrated. Some 6,000 miners–the total varies with the price of the metal on world markets–are camped out near the top of the mountain and live on the silver, as well as zinc, copper, lead and tin, that it still provides. They work in the artisan mode, with crude instruments and a store of knowledge handed down through the ages. Theirs is perhaps the world’s most terrible occupation, not only tiring but deadly. It may kill at any moment, because there is no safety and the men can only trust in Tio, the divinity on whom they shower gifts in the hope of protection and good luck. But it also kills over time, since in the jaws of the Rich Mountain every breath is a step closer to silicosis.

Women are not welcome in the depths of the mountain. Only palliras can go up there–that is, miners’ widows who have the right to scratch a living by gathering the rocks that sometimes fall from carts in between the mine entrance and the trucks. They meet in the market, where they go along with all the other workers to buy their daily necessities, as well as the coca leaves essential for a full day’s work at that altitude, the hand-made cigarettes containing eucalyptus that help with breathing, and the pure alcohol (96°) that they drink during work breaks to help them withstand the extreme conditions.

Accompanied by a guide and a group of miners, I visit a few of the holes opened over the centuries in the Cerro Rico. In spite of the great heat outside, the temperature falls below zero after a few hundred metres. Some stalactites make it difficult to pass, while at certain points the water is ankle-deep and gets inside the men’s worn boots. As we progress, the relatively easy sections alternate with others where it is necessary to walk almost on our knees, since the shafts, little more than a metre high, become ever smaller and narrower. If you stop here, panic begins to get the upper hand. Apart from the faint glow of the helmet-lamp, everything around is pitch dark and you feel immersed in total silence. Now and again this is suddenly broken by a cart weighing a ton or more, piled high with minerals; its wheels have become almost unserviceable over the years, and four workers are needed to drag it along. You have to move carefully then, feeling for side passages or flattening your body against the wall, more than seems possible, to make way for the cart.

We press on, and in a few minutes the temperature suddenly shoots up. It is above forty degrees Celsius–a sudden, excruciating change. The ground beneath us is no longer wet but parched. The air becomes oppressive for lack of oxygen. Dust is everywhere: it gets into your throat and lungs and eyes. You have to keep going, a few dozen metres to the end, where loud sounds now clatter around you. Here are the drillers, the men with the hardest job: they have to bore into the walls and rip them open with home-made dynamite. They are working almost naked, in the most appalling conditions. Some take the lift to the first circle of hell, descending 240 metres into tunnels barely wide enough for their body to head off in search of a vein of zinc, tin or lead, hoping to carry as much as possible to the surface in return for their weekly pay.

It is a long way back. The cold seeps into your bones, and you notice it more than when you were going the other way. When a light finally glows in the distance, you think of the exit as a return to life. It has seemed an eternity, but the clock is there to remind you that only three hours have passed. The strong sun is imparting light and heat, while other mineros are arriving to take their turn inside. Looking at their kind but toil-hardened faces, you cannot help wondering how it is possible to spend every day for thirty years in that inferno.

In the last few decades, the number of Bolivian miners has fallen significantly; it now stands at 70,000, just 1.5 percent of the active population. However, they produce 25 percent of the country’s exports, and another 300,000 have jobs servicing them in the transport, machine-building and trade sectors. Given that they are also one of the most combative proletarian layers in Latin America, you can see why they are still central to the social-economic life of the poorest country in the sub-continent.

Although Bolivia is the world’s seventh producer of silver and lead, its economy is still marked by a lack of adequate means of subsistence. Some 90 per cent of the miners work in cooperatives, without job protection or social security, yet perform only 20 percent of the extraction work. For the sector is dominated by foreign multinationals: the Japanese San Cristóbal corporation controls not only 85 percent of the lead market but (together with the Swiss Sinchi Wayra) 85 percent of zinc and (again with Sinchi Wayra and the US Panamerican Silver) 75 percent of silver extraction.

This presence has not brought improvements in prospecting–witness the fact that most of the mines in use today are the same as those in the colonial period. Nor has anything changed at the level of infrastructure, since the minerals are still transported on an ancient railway system dating back to 1892. The advances in national autonomy are equally meagre: Bolivia refines only a tiny proportion of its silver and lead, and not a single gram of zinc. It has to confine itself to the export of raw materials, sending them to the same countries where the multinationals that control the market have their headquarters. Only scraps of the multimillion-dollar earnings in the sector remain behind. The foreign corporations pay only 8 percent in taxes–a figure far lower than the 56 percent that the state-owned Comibol used to pay, but also significantly less than the 13.5 percent that the notorious ‘tin barons’ handed over in the distant 1930s.

In view of this reality, and considering the damage to the environment and the robbery of non-renewable resources, it is to be hoped that Bolivia will proceed, without hesitation, along the road to nationali-sation. In order to put an end to a semi-colonial economy and move on to a phase of ecologically sustainable modernisation that should respect the choices of the indigenous communities living on its territory.

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Vol 55, No. 49, Jun 4 - 10, 2023