Leaving La Paz after my side trip to Rurre, I was very torn whether to go to Sucre (beautiful colonial town, UNESCO World Heritage site) or Potosi, once one of the richest towns in the world, had declined with the decline of mining but the mines are still operational and can be visited. Unfortunately I only had time for one and I picked Potosi because I wanted to get a better idea of the realities of mining in the developing world. And it was quite a though-provoking trip.
First of all, Potosi is much prettier than I had imagined from the city-in-decline description. The center is very attractive with nice colonial-style building. After coming in on the night bus, I was able to store my bag in one of the local hostel and went about exploring my new surroundings. I did so under the guidance of Mike from Big Deal Tours - one of the more expensive tours in town but the company is completely owned by former miners.
The first stop is the miner's market, where the miners who work defacto as independent entrepreneurs organized in different cooperative buy their own gear, such as shovels, breathing masks but also dynamite and coca leaves. In Potosi is actually legal for anyone to buy dynamite. The custom is that tourists buy some items at the market as gifts for the miners they meet inside the mine - and so I got (besides a bag of coca leaves) also a dynamite kit (for about 3 Euros).
The next stop is getting kitted out with protective clothing (the mines are dirty and arrow), helmet, wellies and a lamp - and then it was off to the mines.
The penultimate stop is a processing plant where the minerals are getting extracted from the rock - there is a strong chemical smell all over the place. This cannot be healthy - and it is not, the workers here die at a similar young age as the miners.
We ended up walking around 3km underground. It was not a very busy day so we did not see many miners but what I saw left quite an impression: it is dirty, dusty (apparently the dust is one factor why miners tend to die young), narrow (I bumped my head so often), in parts quite hot. Most of the mine is secured by wooden beams, some of which look quite haphazard (although our guide said that collapses are very rare) and occasionally you come across stalactites in bright colors - which you are told not to touch because they are toxic.
The work in the mines is similar to how it was 150 years ago - with a little bit better light and better breathing masks if the miner can afford them. There is basically no automation in the mines, some miners use pneumatic drills but the ones we saw just used hammers and chisel to either get stones out or to make holes for the dynamite.
The stones they collect are either moved in trolleys pushed by the miners or, the precious stuff, in little backpacks.
I am not claustrophobic (the mine is not a good place if you are) but I was really glad once we were back outside and I have to say, I got a whole new appreciation for the (human) cost of mining silver.