Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Silvermines in Potosi, Bolivia

One of the stops on the trip was in Potosi. It is a small silver mining city where the Spanish Empire reaped the majority of its wealth. In the height of the empire Potosi was larger and more important that London and Paris. Money was pouring out of the city and it was the place for entrepreneurs to come make their fortunes. Today Potosi looks beleaguered. While there are little signs of its older grandeur with ornate churches lining many of the streets, it shows more signs of the reaping and pillaging of colonial empires, than the investment of people planning to stay.

During the Spanish Empire over 9 million people died in the mines. Today silver mining is still the main job provider in Potosi. And while job conditions have gotten a little better than in colonial times the average life of a miner is still only 10-20 years from the time he starts working. Arsenic poison attacks their lungs. As Westerners, who have been able to choose our professions, it was very hard for us to look in the miners eyes without why do they keep doing these jobs? How does one start a job when they know it’s an early death sentence? How can you father the average 6 kids and then leave your wife as a widow at 30 or 40 years old to raise them, when for the most part there are no almost no pensions or support after you die? But, in reality, we had to reflect back that this is all these people know. For hundreds of years the men of Potosi have been sacrificing themselves to dig up silver and now other minerals like zinc. Their fathers died as they will too.

We were able to go into the mines and experience a bit closer what life is like. We climbed through little tunnels and traveled deep into the mine. We met miners and even got to experience a dynamite blast and hear the broken rock fall away in the tunnels around us. At times in the mine I really began to question what I was doing there. Safety seemed to be a secondary concern. The smoky dusty explosive filled air sent sharp pains through my sinuses. Darkness, mud and deep holes were treacherous parts of our journey, but I am an experiential explorer and feeling that blast of air from the dynamite that practically pushed me over might be the coolest thing I’ve ever felt. The process we experienced is how most minerals are retrieved and I got to feel it first hand in a way I'd never be allowed in most countries.

In the end, I must say though I’m looking at silver in a new way now. Capitalism pushes for the lowest price for commodities but if you saw the conditions that people worked wouldn't you pay a little more for your trinkets???

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