Potosí Holocaust

Potosí, once one of the richest and largest city in the world – bigger than London, Madrid, Rom or Paris – is also the place where the biggest holocaust in human history took place.
It is estimated that in the last three centuries Potosí’s Cerro Rico consumed 8 million lives of Indian and African slaves.

After the discovery of silver in 1545 and the foundation of Potosí two years later by the Spanish conquistadores, the mining town soon counted a population of 120.000 in 1573. It is claimed to be the highest city in the world at a nominal 4,090m and hence an unbearable place to live and work.

The metals taken from the colonial dominions not only stimulated Europe’s economic development, one may say they made it possible.

800m high rainbow coloured Cerro Rico

A must read:
Open Veins of Latin America – Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” by Eduardo Galeano.

A must watch:
The Devil’s Miner” is the story of 14 year-old Basilio and his 12 year-old brother Bernardino, as they work in the silver mines of Cerro Rico.
It is one of the most powerful documentaries I have ever watched.

poto2 poto3

Yesterday I joined an organized tour to the mines deep inside Cerro Rico to experience first hand the medieval conditions in which over 10000 desperate miners and around 800 children between 10 and 14 years still work trying to scrape a living out of the depleted veins.

At the miner’s market in town I bought cigarettes, coca leaves and dynamite as presents for the miners.

poto4 poto5 poto6
We went over a full kilometer into the “Candelaria” mine, up and down ladders, on our knees, squeezing through tiny holes and marching across cathedral sized caves – only secured by hundred year-old, rotten, wooden planks.

The temperature was close to freezing point outside, then reaching above 30°C inside the mountain. We were always short of breath, with sand & sweat in our eyes and the dust filled air burnt in our lungs making breathing painful and almost impossible.
Half of the group didn’t finish the 2 hour tour inside the mountain.

poto7 poto8

In the mine I spoke to a miner who has been making boreholes for dynamite with a stone-age hammer and an iron bolt for the last 20 years, 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, starting when he was 12 years old!
A normal 10 to 12 hours shift pays between 35 and 40 Bolivianos (~ 3.50 EUR) for the ordinary miner.
The miner told us, he needed about 3 hours for 20 cm & the hole has to be at least one meter deep before he could place the dynamite.

I did the tour with Koala Tours in Potosí. Ask for English speaking guide & ex-miner “Reynaldo”. He is exceptional! One of the best guides I have come across my travels in whole Latino America. The respect he showed and the way he communicated with the miners was exemplary.
It is not the cheapest tour operator in town but definitely worth paying the couple of dollars extra since 15% of the company’s profit goes directly back to the miner’s community.

Our guide “Reynaldo” giving an example of a dynamite explosion on the slopes of Cerro Rico

November 18, 2009  Tags: ,   Posted in: Bolivia Views: 5169

Leave a Comment