Until recently, Bolivian tourist brochures mostly focused on the highest capital in the world (La Paz) the salt planes of Uyuni. Today, one can ‘experience’ the hellish conditions deep in the ‘mountain that eats men’, making the mines the newest must-see attraction of Bolivia.
This men-eating mountain in Potosí is also named Cerro Richo (Rich Mountain), derived from the exorbitant amount of silver that has been extracted from the mines. Potosí was one of the largest cities in South America, while the profits remained in the hands of the Spanish. Over the years, the silver ran out and miners had to dig deeper while being satisfied with the remaining, less precious, metals.
The conditions in the Cerra Rico mines are what you expect when you hear that the miners worship the devil-like ‘El Tio’ because Christ does not dear to even enter this mountain. A famous anecdote used by the miners explains how a bridge from Potosí to Spain could have been constructed with all the silver found in Cerra Rico, but that one could also build a bridge of the bones of dead miners.
In Bolivia, even the young teenage miners chew coca leaves to supress the feeling of hunger and fatigue. The further lack of safety measures in the mines is shocking, as 80% of the miners work without any health insurance or social security.
In the last decades, Cerra Rico has been run by co-operatives in an attempt to share the profits more equally. Nevertheless, the working conditions have remained medieval and the miners’ last hope is found in the benefits that are generated by tourism.
Although tourism could be a potentially sustainable solution, recent studies have determined that the exploitation has led to a seriously instable mountain. As a result, total collapse of Cerra Rico is possible, destroying all sources of income including the new found goldmine of tourism. Further studies suggest that a catastrophe can best be prevented by filling certain areas of the mines with cement. Besides the high costs of the project, this situation faces a more unique set of objections.
To understand the opposition towards restructuring the mine, one must recall the historical and cultural importance of the Cerra Rico for the city of Potosí. The mines have been their primary source of income for almost 500 years, making it hard to accept that Mother Nature will fail to do so in the future.
The high importance of values such as cultural traditions, a strong family heritage and respect for nature can be found in many parts of Bolivia. It is therefore not surprising that Bolivia is one of the few countries were MacDonald has been unsuccessful, because the Bolivians preferred the more traditional Bolivian food. Hopefully, mining tourism can play a role in the explanation of these values to people who otherwise mistake them for ignorance.