Unethical Tourism & First World Voyeurism...Descending into the jaws of Hell

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March 25th 2016
Published: March 27th 2016
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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."

Yeeka...freaka...whatsa bleaka!

Sounds 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?

7. As 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,

Dancing Dave

Additional photos below
Photos: 63, Displayed: 30


27th March 2016

Loved it :)
27th March 2016

I take it your judgment is reserved Cindy. Sometimes it is appropriate to let these issues sink in before deliberating. Thanks for commenting.
27th March 2016

Is Potosi tour unethical?
It's a difficult question that we face so many times in our life...we constantly heard against child labours in India notwithstanding the fact that few extra few bucks a child brings home makes the family survive...so it's an eternal dilemma in my view. Do we have an alternate solution to offer? The same way, if your visit helped those miners in any way, shouldn't you be considering that your trip contributed to their well being in some way. It's damn if you do, damn if you don't. This world is a complicated place some time, Dave. I am torn with this dilemma.
27th March 2016

Is Potosi tour unethical?
Spot on comments Tab. It's damn if you do, damn if you don't. I can think of other places in the world where the same issues arise but each are peculiar to that location and circumstance. If sensitivity and respect are exercised does it ameliorate the tourist's dilemma? This blog I raise questions and leave the answers to others!
27th March 2016

I'll bite. The answers are:
1. Yes, if the conditions for the workers are bad (see 4). If not, then no. 2. Yes. 3. Yes. 4. Yes. 5. Yes. 6. No. 7. No. 8. No. They desperately need equipment that protects them (perhaps they know the equipment provided to the tourists doesn't work!) or a job that doesn't kill them. 9. Yes...but it's not worth it. 10. Yes...many bloggers do things that they know hurts the local people and themselves, the local environment and culture; then feel guilty about it and promise themselves never to do it again as a way of assuaging their guilt. 11. Yes...another way of justifying having done something they shouldn't have. I await your judgement! I love your anti-authoritarian streak taking all those forbidden pictures!
27th March 2016

I'll bite. Bob's answers are:
Had to check your answers before I responded Bob, which were interesting indeed. I've since numbered the clincher "12" and I have presumed your answer to that one. I take it you have not visited the site. Just for fun I'll throw another to you "What parts of the mine tour did we do, and why?"
28th March 2016

One of many things to contemplate as I sip my fair trade coffee & nibble on my organic, carbon neutral, locally produced toast...
As first world people we have the luxury of contemplating these issues of how to think & behave ethically, all from the comfort of our privileged & sanitised lives. Making the morally right, ethically thought through decision feels so good but is it just window dressing issues that essentially will never be changed, like a willy willy wind that moves around the surface of a mountain but does nothing to change the mountain itself? Is it a judgement that can only be made by people who experience these unimaginable lifestyles? As Tab has pointed out sometimes it is about just surviving, a whole new mindset for first worlders, but to do nothing is so wrong. Whether you take these type of tours or not is never that simple. Whilst I'm at it, when does taking a photo of a life that is different than our own move from recording for posterity to voyeurism? Just one of many things to contemplate as I sip my fair trade coffee & nibble on my organic, carbon neutral, locally produced toast. I'm not convinced that these ethical decisions that we make will change the present because you can't change what has already been laid down but can we collectively change the future? I guess that is the question for me.
28th March 2016

One of many things to contemplate as I sip my fair trade coffee & nibble on my organic, carbon neutral, locally produced toast...
A well thought response from one who has been there. The ugly tourist who conveys insensitivity and contempt is easy to condemn. But can we indeed judge tourism as unethical if we are not the ones at the coal face? Can we indeed judge from our First World high horse?
28th March 2016

Who could resist the alluring name of "The Jaws of Hell"?
It's great to see people asking good questions about the ethics of tourism. I love your portraits of the miner and the soldier - they capture so much of their character and life in a single picture. Another great blog Dave.
28th March 2016

Who could resist the alluring name of "The Jaws of Hell"?
What better way to introduce the topic than someone's email to me waving a big stick not to descend into the jaws of Hell. Invitation or dare? I reckon the soldier would look at the words behind him and point to "Moral" & "Justica" because when you are in command...you can! Thanks for commenting Richard.
28th March 2016
Onto the roof

Worth the climb
What a stunning view! I can see why this is one of your best highlights. Your blog is an interesting read and I think I am swimming more towards unethical but I can appreciate the positives that tourism brings to this city.
28th March 2016
Onto the roof

Worth the climb
The hardest thing about the view from the roof Alan was culling the pics to just a few. Swimming more towards unethical I see...knowing of course in deep water one has to test the depth!
3rd April 2016

No judgment here
Wow, what a blog with so many amazing and thoughtful questions. These are questions that we could ask every time we travel. How do we impact the world? How does our visit change the location? the people? us? Stories, myths, reality, dreams, investigation of facts.... Loved the inspired comments of the lovely Laila... :)
4th April 2016

No judgment here
And in the true spirit of ethical tourism I have not delivered my judgment either!
27th April 2020

This popped up on my feed! Another great photo. Love how you capture people at their truest!
27th April 2020

At the time all I could think was how lucky am I, Andrea. The commanding officer posing with its title like a ribbon with medals on it. Thanks for commenting.

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