Scribbles from Bolivia No. 11 - 09.02.2011

The colonial plundering of Potosí

cerroricoIn the middle of the 16th century the Spaniards discovered solver sources in the cerro rico, which was to become the richest silver mountain in the whole world. Zu exploit the precious metal in 1545 they founded Potosi in the meager Andean highlands. Within 28 years the city grew to the same size as London counting 120.000 inhabitants (more the Paris or Rome during these days). The ruling people lived in extravagant richness, while indigenous slaves were working in the mountain, mostly dying within in few years because of the terrible working conditions in the mines, which were also called “hell´s pharynx”. According to an estimation of Josiah Conder it swallowed 8Million human lifes during 300 colonial years. The attempt to let African slaves work in the mines failed, because they could not stand the altitude of more than 4000m above the sea level.

According to a survey from 1934 by Earl J. Hamilton  between 1503 and 1660 16 Million kilogram of silver reached the Spanish mainland officially (+smuggling). Beside the Mexican mines this mainly came from Potosí. Because the Spanish crown was highly in debt, the vast majority of the silver and gold imports from the colonies got to the hands of dutch, French, English, Genoese and german merchants. In their home regions the capital thus accumulated laid an important foundation stone for economic progress, the industrial revolution and the wealth of Europe. While plundering the Latin American precious metals enabled this development in Europe, it impeded the same in the exploited regions.

The contemporary situation

minero2Thus still today miners live in houses with corrugated metal roofs between dirt roads at the bottom of the former richest silver mountain of the world.

In the mountain itself with dynamite, mattocks and shovels they extract rocks from the depths of the mines putting them in bags, pulley tackles or simple trolleys. The latter still run on railways which partly are still from colonial times. I could gain the experience to push an empty trolley through galleries in which barely the vehicle itself fitted and almost surrendered at some upward sections. And that was pulling an empty trolley inside the mountain, which is a mainly sloping way.



Under these extreme hard working conditions the miners work six days a week 8, 10, 12 hours or longer, some 20-30 years until they die because of an accident or pneumoconiosis caused by dust, asbestos and mine gases. In the mine we met people workers who wore tissues in their nose to block the streaming blood. According to the law, working in the mine is permitted if you are older than 18years, but we also encountered a 14-year old boy who had just started to work in the mine besides school to support his family.

At least the miners are organized as cooperatives or they even have their own gallery , being their own chiefs to a certain degree. Thus they can decide on their own when they want/have to work and when they want to rest. Nonetheless want they gain in the end not only depends on their luck to find valuable minerals, but also on the international prizes and the local private enterprise to which they sell the crude metals.

Neocolonial trade structures?


Even if the miners Potosí have got a relative good income by the Bolivian average, they are still producing mere raw materials for the manufacturing industries of Europe, USA, Japan etc. In Potosi today mainly zinc is extracted, which is needed as  an rust inhibitor or steel industruie, railways, cars, ,..  as well as a base material for batteries. Curiously these industries (like many others) grew at those places where the silver from Potosí was accumulated and still companies like ThyssenKrupp; VW and Varta have got their seeds there.

IF tourist value visiting the mines, “because it shows us how nice our living conditions are”, they should ask themselves why that is so and take their time for a lecture of Eduardo Galeanos “The Open Veins of Latin America”. “Because even in our days the existence of rich capitalistic centers cannot be explained without the existence of poor suppressed peripheries. The first and the latter are part of the same system.

With these words of Galeano I want to close the series of “scribbles from Bolivia” and say good bye to this plundered country, which since 2006 tries to get rid of those mechanisms which make it a “poor suppressed periphery” (-like the controversial nationalization of the hydrocarbons or building in own industrie to use the world largests resources of lithium. Thus the (international trade-)”system” won´t be changed a lot, bt maybe the situation of the people in the economically poorest country of Latin America with rich natural resources, who see themselves as “beggers on a golden throne”.

a11Good bye.


Axel Anlauf (contact Esta dirección de correo electrónico está siendo protegida contra los robots de spam. Necesita tener JavaScript habilitado para poder verlo.)