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Published: March 27th 2016
BOLIVIA...Unethical Tourism & First World Voyeurism.
A friend fired a warning :
"You are scheduled to take a tour of the mines in Potosi--DO NOT DO IT! I saw the film, The Devil's Miner, boys and men working the mines and their horrific conditions. You will be suited up and then descend into the jaws of hell. If you have issues with claustrophobia, you'll die. Also, you will be breathing horrendous, thick, toxic dust that will sear your lungs and ruin your camera. Breathing this dust, most miners only live to be about forty. Worse yet, you'll be a first-world voyeur, using as entertainment, the terrible, short lives of these third-world people who, unlike the tourist agency, will not benefit from your visit except for the pitiful alcohol, cigarettes and dynamite you give them. Also, sometimes, the agency allows you to detonate dynamite, which is bad for the environment. Instead, see the film, read blogs about the condition of the miners and pass on the unethical tour. Without exception, all bloggers say they would never do it again. Go see the dinosaurs instead! Just my opinion."
like a downer in any language.
But one phrase stuck out above the rest...the words "Worse yet, you'll be a first-world voyeur, using as entertainment, the terrible, short lives of these third-world people who, unlike the tourist agency, will not benefit from your visit"
And two words..."VOYEUR" and "UNETHICAL"...jumping out of the page.
Do not take photos of soldiers and military
Seems there are a lot of things when traveling in Bolivia that folks will warn you shouldn't do.
One is NOT to take the Death Road by bicycle. That's OK...we've got something much more exciting coming up in my next blog!
Another is NOT to take photos of soldiers or police.
We stopped to visit the only castle in Bolivia...down a muddy track past a swollen river...through a military guardpost...a gate to the castle looking deserted as light rain falling...my only concern not to get Den's camera wet. So I sheltered under cover of a walkway bridge over the river planning my sprint for a shot of the castle.
Which meant I was within arms length of the armed soldiers guarding the bridge. Soldiers across the
other side forming lines, shuffling to and fro, others running to join them as if fearing they be late...more shuffling, jostling...heads to front...still silence..."Atten...ha."
Looks like a passing out parade for graduate officers...salutes...shaking hands with the big wigs. Then it was all over...relatives in civvies milling around...then streaming over the bridge towards me. "Do not take photos of soldiers and military"
ringing in my brain.
So I asked the commanding officer if I could take his photo...guards surrounding me.
He smiled...the smile of a man used to being in command...his massive hands sweeping the guards aside...my camera focusing on his smile...the words "Disciplina, Liderazgo, Moral, Dignidad, Honour, Justica" framing him from behind.
****** Do not take photos of police at borders or checkpoints
They jumped out in front of us...in Oz it'd be a Breathalyser...in Bolivia it's kinda different. These were police armed with guns...tool kits on their chests. Demanding us out of the 4WD...jumping in and grabbing our bags. What are they looking for?
"Cocaine." Welcome to Cocaine Highway. Bolivia challenging Colombia in supplying the stuff.
Why don't they use dogs? How can they expect to find drugs if
they don't use dogs? They seeming to smell my dismay. "Do not take photos of police at checkpoints"
ringing in my brain.
So I asked the officer if I could take his photo...he and his mate shaking their heads, pushing me away.
I'm not put off so easy.
He smiled...the smile of a man used to being in command...my camera focusing on his reluctant smile...the words "How do you get away with it?" framing him from behind.
****** Do not climb on the roof
Potosi at 4,060m is higher altitude than La Paz, Cusco and Lhasa.
Who'd have thought climbing onto the roof of the San Francesco Church would have been one of the highlights of our Bolivian adventure so far...but it was!
Up the ladder to the roof...then like a cat between the tiles and towers...up the bell tower with views over the whole town to the mountains beyond...swooning not from altitude but terracotta heaven. Get up there and you will know what I mean.
Then into the catacombs. Skulls of past priests in an open carved box peeping out...sunken eyes as if their ghosts still inhabit
this place...their souls presumably in Heaven receiving grace.
Then to the altars...the Virgin Mary looking down.
I feel the spirits of Andeans of old...their eyes bowing...the church so lavish the message clear...this Christian god is mighty...gotta be mightier than theirs!
****** Do not descend into the jaws of Hell.
I remembered our friend's warning (my opening paragraph).
Legend says an Incan shepherd was sitting by his campfire when the ground started melting...trickles of molten silver flowing from the fire.
Then the Spaniards came.
In about 1544 they discovered the mountain known as Cerro Rico was a mountain of silver ore...the biggest deposit of silver in the world as it turned out.
Potosi was born and became the richest city in the Americas for over 200 years.
A tour of the Potosi Royal Mint is a must to get the full story of how rich Potosi became...and how the Spaniards' greed to extract the ore was insatiable.
By 1580 an extraction system called patio
was introduced whereby dammed water was forced into hydraulic mills that ground the ore. Mercury (that's poisonous isn't it?) was amalgamated with the silver
ore in kilns resulting in silver ingots that were stamped and shipped to Spain in massive galleons.
It was said the amount of silver extracted from Cerro Rico could have paved a road to Spain and beyond.
The silver coins for the monetary currency of Spain were minted in Potosi and shipped to the Spanish Empire around the world.
But at what cost? This was not just rape and pillage of the land...it was rape and pillage of the Andean people.
Andean indians worked the mines under a system of mandatory labour called mita
. Life expectancy was about one year in the mines. So many died in the tunnels honeycombing the mountain that African slaves who were bigger and stronger were brought in their thousands...and in their thousands died quickly unable to withstand the altitude. So the Andean indians who were smaller and used to altitude were sent back in.
And as our guide's family well knew...if the Andeans did not obey their Spanish masters, a daughter, a sister may never be seen again.
It is said in less than 300 years of silver mining by the Spanish in Potosi about 8 million Andeans
and Africans died.
By about 1800 the mining boom declined and Potosi became a ghost town.
Bolivia gained independence from Spain.
So the locals kept on digging...in deplorable conditions...looking for silver the Spanish missed.
A life in the mines is NOT an easy one
There are thousands of tunnels in Cerro Rico and the top of the mountain is porous and unstable with areas of collapse.
And safety conditions...what are they?
There is virtually no mechanisation so digging is with picks and rock axes made easier with sticks of dynamite to explode rock walls.
Tunnels are supported with wooden props and beams...pretty basic but that's the way it's always been done.
One ton ore trucks are loaded with ore and pushed by hand along rail tracks laid on the floor of tunnels. With a run up two or three can push a loaded ore truck out of the tunnels to the open air and then tip it over the side for others to process...and then get back in to load up another.
There is a fair bit of water in the tunnels and it
can get muddy...but everyone wears rubber boots so that's OK.
There are rubber pipes running into the tunnels...can't recall if that was to pump in air or carry electric cables.
In the old days many children worked in the mines. Now there are co-operatives it is said you need to be 18 to work there now, but some reports I have seen say child labour still occurs.
Miners are encouraged to wear gloves and face masks but face masks impede vision and as one is constantly chewing coca leaves face masks can get in the way.
The miners chew coca leaves all day which helps suppress appetite so they can work their 12 hour shifts without a meal...which also helps because there are no toilets inside.
Noxious gases are still a worry but as long as you don't lick your fingers you lessen the risk of arsenic, dust and gases on your hands. But if miners wear gloves doesn't that takes the risk of licking fingers away?
And doesn't the devil...El Tio...live in the darkness down there?
Yeh. But that's OK too. There are El Tio figures in every mine. As long as
the miners leave gifts of coca leaves, beer and cigarettes as offerings they should be fine. I hear El Tio appreciates a few splashes of llama blood too!
Sounds as if everything is covered but...
It is said there is at least one major accident every day, with at least three of the approximately 12,000 miners killed every month, mainly due to tunnel collapses and/or toxic gases.
In 2014 The United Nations placed the Potosi mines on the UN World Heritage list as in danger due to uncontrolled mining.
But there is an up side...miners earn about $10 per day so it's one of the best paid jobs in town.
To be or NOT to be? Unethical Tourism & First World Voyeurism
There are organised tours to take tourists into the mines.
They kit you out in overalls, rubber boots, helmets with headlamps...you can even take your camera and photograph miners working.
There is a ratty gift shop where you are encouraged to buy gifts for the miners...a big bag of coca leaves, large bottles of soft drink, a bottle of 98%!a(MISSING)lcohol to help the miners through the
day, gloves, face masks...and how about a few sticks of dynamite to ease their digging today?
But it's no stroll in the park. No sirree!
Bolivians are small so tourists may need to crouch, waddle, shimmy, climb and crawl...after all life was not meant to be easy.
And from what we saw...the miners appreciate the gifts to brighten their day. So I raise these questions:
1. Is it unethical to take a mine tour i.e. should mining not be a tourist attraction?
2. If you have issues with claustrophobia, will you die?
3. If you are told you will be breathing horrendous, thick, toxic dust that will sear your lungs and ruin your camera, is that sufficient reason not to take the risk?
4. As mining is dangerous and safety conditions basic, is the tourist a first-world voyeur, using as entertainment, the terrible, short lives of these third-world people?
5. Is it that unlike the tourist agency, the miners will not benefit from your visit except for the pitiful alcohol, cigarettes and dynamite you give them?
6. Or is the word "pitiful" a bit harsh?
there are guided tours and you are kitted out, can one assume, as long as care is taken, toxic dust will not sear your lungs and ruin your camera?
8. Is it that the gifts tourists bring are items the miners may desperately need?
9. Is tourism bringing money into the local economy that the townsfolk desperately need?
10. Is it that without exception, all bloggers say they would never do it again?
11. Or do most tourists regard it as a serious, sobering, eye opening experience and express they are glad they went?
These are important questions for the responsible traveller to consider.
So I leave you with the clincher: 12. If we take a Potosi mine tour, are we unethical travellers or first-world voyeurs, using as entertainment, the terrible, short lives of these third-world people?
To be fair I should share the definition of "voyeur" from the Oxford English Dictionary which usually has a sexual connotation but in the sense conveyed in this blog is "A person who enjoys seeing the pain or distress of others."
You be the judge. I have my own judgment to deliver.
Relax & Enjoy,
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