Today I took a tour to the silver mines, located in the Bolivian Tin Belt, Cerro Rico de Potosi it is the world’s largest silver deposit and has been mined since the sixteenth century. The first stop on the tour was at the local market where we were encouraged to my gifts to give to the minors who work long hours in poor conditions.
I bought a bag of coco leaves (only legal in Bolivia, Peru & Ecuador), and a bottle of cola, others in our group purchased dynamite which our guide said would be beneficial for the minors as it helps with their work. They are paid a percentage of the amount of silver or zinc they collect which at times can be very minimal.
We were provided with protective clothing and helmets with lights and masks before approaching the mines. We walked 4km into the mountain which was very unpleasant. It is very dusty and I would say you an only walk upright approx. half of the way, the rest of the time we were bending over, squatting and for a few parts, crawling. In most tunnels where it is narrow and dark it can be difficult to breathe (the altitude also plays a role in this).
Potosi one of the highest cities in the world by elevation at a nominal 4,090 metres.
I was quite shocked by the working conditions, we were told the average life expectancy of the minors is 35-40 years of age. Most only work 20 years before lung problems/issues force them into retirement. Many start working from young ages, we met one boy of 15yrs who had worked already almost 3yrs in the mine. These young minors being on wages as low as $20-30 per week. Many people in the tour asked questions about the conditions and the reasons these people choose this line of work, we were told that most are 5th or 6th generation minors, its tradition and they are often uneducated and in some cases unaware of other opportunities. They are born into this and its all they know, they even still mine the same way they did 300 years ago, some using the same equipment and processes for extracting metals.
This has been an eye opening experience for me and has made me quite sad….