Tag Archives: development

The Mountain That Eats Men

Potosí was founded in 1546 and was once one of the biggest and richest cities in the Americas due to the wealth of silver found in the mountain, Cerro Rico. The mines produced around 60,000 tons of silver, which brought significant wealth to the Spanish empire through centuries of exploitation of local indigenous people and African slaves who worked and died in the mountain.

It has been claimed that up to 8 million people have died whilst working in the mine or through illnesses contracted as a result of spending so much time underground. Consequently, the locals now refer to it as the mountain that eats men. The mine is still in operation today, although there is very little silver left. The digging of over 90 kilometres of tunnels has seen the 4300m high mountain drop around 100m in height, and an American engineer has predicted that within 50 years the whole mountain will collapse. Despite this, the miners still continue their back breaking work, scraping for whatever minerals they can in horrendous conditions.

While we were in Potosí we had the opportunity to visit the mine. Whilst we were a little apprehensive about the dangers of an operating mine, curiosity overtook sensibility and we went underground to experience it first hand.

Cerro Rico and the Potosí mine.

While we have been travelling we both recently read George Orwell's investigation into the coal mining towns of 1930's Northern England, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). It provides great descriptions of the conditions which resonated with what we saw in Potosí. So, to help describe the experience we have borrowed a few of his passages.

“When you get down a coal-mine it is important to try and get to the coal face when the “fillers” are at work…when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are there – heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.”

The documentary The Devil's Miner follows the story of two young brothers who were forced to work in the mines to support their family after their father died. It describes the combined fear and reverance of the devil, or Tio as it is locally referred to. While most of the miners are Christian, when they are underground they worship the devil because they believe that he controls the mine and that Christ has no power underground.

The statue above is one example of a Tio which we saw inside the mine. The miners pray to the statue upon entering the mine so that they might find a good vein of silver or be protected from explosions, toxic gas, silicosis and falling rocks. They give offerings such as coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to the Tio statues, which can be found in every major mine within the mountain. They also perform sacrifices, such as slaughtering llamas at the entrance to the mine and throwing blood on the walls and doors to appease the Tio so that he will be satisfied with the sacrifice and won't take a human life. The film was really interesting and incredibly sad. Definately worth watching to get an insight into the horrendous conditions faced by men and children working in the mines even to this day.

The Devil's Miner (Trailer)


The miners in Potosí work long shifts without a break and may work up to 24 hours, even the children. They depend on small comforts to make their day 'tolerable'. Coca leaves and cigarrettes are common comforts to stave off hunger and fatigue.

George Orwell described the conditions inside the mines in England, which have not changed much in modern times in Bolivia…

“the heat…in some mines is suffocating – and the coal dust that stuffs up your throat and nostrils and collects along your eyelids, and the unending rattle of the conveyor belt, which in that space is rather like the rattle of a machine gun.”

Although there is no conveyor belt, the use of pneumatic drills and dynamite exposes miners to high levels of toxic dust. As per the photos below, miners are exposed to copper sulphate, sulphur, arsenic and asbestos all day, every day, in heat up to 40 degrees celsius.

The orange crystals are copper sulphate.

Poisonous minerals accumulate on the wooden beams.

The mine is in a precarious state. Walking through the mine, we often passed under broken beams, tunnels could be back brackingly low and at times we were forced to crawl on our hands and knees and slide down vertical tunnels. Can you imagine 90 kms of this?
“In the beginning, of course, a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal. But as the seam gets worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get further and further from the pit (entrance).
You do not notice the effect of this till you have gone a few hundred yards. You start off, stooping slightly, down the dim-lit gallery, eight or ten feet wide and about five high…Every yard or two there are wooden props holding up the beams and girders; some of the girders have buckled into fantastic curves under which you have to duck.
I am handicapped by being tall, but when the roof falls to four feet or less it is a tough job for anybody…You have not only got to bend double, you have also got to keep your head up all the while so as to see the beams and girders and dodge them when they come.”
The combination of heat, dust and lack of oxygen meant that we were often forced to stop for breath. We wore bandanas over our faces to protect us from breathing in the toxic dust but it was impossible to breathe properly though it, which inevitably meant we had to keep removing it (and thus inhale the dust). No wonder the miners all get silicosis and other lung diseases.
At one stage during the underground tour we stopped to catch our breath. Our guide did not notice and kept walking with the group. We were soon left behind. We gave chase but we could not see any lights or hear anyone.
After walking for a few minutes we came upon a fork in the tunnel. We called out to our group but there was no response. The walls seemed to swallow our voices. Trying not to freak out, we took a gamble and kept walking in the same direction, continuing to call out into the darkness. We came across another junction with no-one there, which shocked us. We waited a few minutes and resolved to carry on, again trying to head in the same direction.
After about ten minutes we caught up to the group. Saskia confronted the guide but instead of apologising for leaving us behind our guide told us we were being too slow. He was particularly unsympathetic as he used to be a miner and clearly did not want to be there, but we learnt he was also hungover from the night before and had just finished joking with everyone else in our group about how he got lost in the mine with a tour group once before. As far as we are concerned it was his job to make sure the group was with him; our safety is his responsibility.
Two obvious mistakes were made. Firstly, there should have been two guides, one at the front and one at the back (as is common on caving tours back home). Secondly, the guide should have retreated to the previous junctions when it became clear we weren't there. Poor mistakes for an experienced outfit. We were with Koala Tours and on the basis of this experience we would not recommend them.
Setting that aside, everyone in the group was grateful to leave by the end of the tour. We were only there for a few hours and must have seemed incredibly precious to the hardened miners who literally kill themselves working there, but as an outsider who has never experienced anything like that before, it was intense! Whilst it was definately an eye-opening experience, it is not something that we would want to do again. We remain embarrassed to know that we will never have to work in conditions like this when for some this is their best option.



Profile of a Bolivian Village


This is a side post from Day Two of “The Saga” (cue dramatic music). As development nerds we were interested in the quality of life of the Bolivians living in Cerillos, one of the small towns we passed through. The following is an attempt to develop a basic profile of Cerillos.

Cerillos is a collection of hamlets located about half a days drive south west of Tupiza via a dirt road. It sits at an altitude of approximately 4,100 metres (we were there in winter and it was dry but freezing cold!). The hamlets have a combined population of around 80 families of between 5 to 10 people each.*

Local shop.


As you can see in the photo below, the housing is traditional adobe brick with thatch roofing and floors of either dirt, stone or concrete. Apparently it takes 2 to 3 people about 15 days to build a house, which will last 50 years. In this hamlet the houses were designed as walled compounds with stand alone rooms, which they modify based on the family’s needs.


The town is powered and we saw several sattelite dishes and solar panels, so they definitely keep on top of the football. We’ve already mentioned that the roads are unpaved so they have reasonable access to infrastructure for a remote community. Not many people have access to cars, but there is a steady stream of tourist jeeps and produce trucks passing through.


The nearest hospital is in Tupiza but they have a medical centre in the hamlet. This is staffed by a doctor and two nurses. We don’t know what their level of training is and we did not visit the centre.

Local diet is fairly basic and consists of llama, beans, quinoa, maize and of course potatoes.

With regard to water they are apparently quite secure; we were told there is sufficient water all year round, with rains coming in summer. Water is accessed via a large pump and pipe system which draws from an underground source. We are not experts on this sort of thing but as you can see below the system is sophisticated.

The sanitation situation will make many squirm. The little we saw was not good. As there were no toilets in the café we were all forced to ‘use nature’. When searching for a good spot we did find two outdoor toilets near a school. They had three walls, a concrete floor and a roof. However, there was no door, toilet base or hole in the floor, let alone a ventilation pipe. We’ll spare you a description of the mess but it was revolting. Hate to think that kids have got to use those facilities.

Solid waste was dumped in a gully by the school. Not sure what their options are in that environment but this is more or less what we expected (although we didn’t like it being so close to the school).

Taken from a different village but you get the idea.


They do have a school which services all the hamlets. Disappointed to admit that we forgot to ask any questions on this. You might be interested to know that kids typically attend school for half a day as they are also expected to assist their families with manual labour. We also note that secondary school only became compulsory in 2010.


As we understood it the mines in the area were the main source of income. This is where most of the men worked. Household income was supplemented by the sale of llama meat and pelts. Apparently the women tendered the llama herds if the men worked in the mines.

As the climate there is so arid there are poor options for food crops. So, it seems that the people of Cerillos are very much dependent on the success or failure of the mines.

Pen of llamas with colourful earrings to mark ownership in the village.

Pros and Cons

Reading back over the post, we are surprised at the amount of information we have. Although it is only a basic outline, we thought that the village was well served in terms of services and access to infrastructure. Bear in mind that this is a remote community in South America’s poorest country. We think that the community is fairly self-sufficient, a good thing if people wish to preserve the village way of life.

There are a few issues though. We haven’t delved into the mining situation but with only two sources of income the village’s economic security is tied to the mines. We wouldn’t be surprised if most of the villagers emigrated once the money begins to dry up. That said, the mines probably instigated the village’s creation.

The environmental sanitation was not good. Those are the worst toilets we have ever seen and the solid waste was an ugly pile of trash. This stuff often gets neglected (1 billion people still defecate in the open) but it is a shame to see things like this. We later saw that things were better managed in other communities.

Abandoned house on the outskirts of a village.

Wrap Up

So, hopefully this was interesting to read. It was certainly fun to write, not bad for a spur of the moment idea. But that’s all it was…Please note that Bolivian villages are not homogenous. The climate, the proximity to urban centres and trunk roads are just some of the factors that can make a big difference between village life in different parts of Bolivia. This was just an attempt to provide a snapshot of what life is like in a village we visited. Hopefully it has been informative.

Thanks for reading,

Mark and Saskia.

*We didn’t ask about maternal or child health, although we should have given the family size. We mostly spoke to our guide and assumed there is only so much he could know. Here are some national stats that may be of interest:

  • The maternal mortality rate was 190 deaths per 100,000 live births over 2008 to 2012. Developed countries sit at between 5 and 15, although the U.S. rate is high at over 20/100,000. Brazil, a neighbour, sits at 51/100,000.
  • The under 5 child mortality rate was 51 deaths per 1,000 live births over 2008 to 2012. Developed countries sit at around 5/1,000 and Chile, a neighbour, is at 9/1,000.
  • The rates tend to be worse in rural communities when compared to urban communities.
  • Two reports stated that maternal and infant mortality remain the highest in the region after Haiti. Several reports did however note good progress in bringing the rates down over the last 20 years.
  • UNICEF/WHO data reports that national access to safe water is good at 88% of the population, 71% for rural communities. However, only 27% of the population have access to improved sanitation, with only 10% in rural communities. We can believe that!

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

Pay a visit to any of South America's cities and you will quickly be struck by the contrasts. In Buenos Aires you will see piles of rubbish at the feet of glass towers. In Rio de Janeiro, large favelas face towards multimillion dollar penthouse apartments. In Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic powerhouse, the super wealthy travel by helicopter, spending their working days in the sky while the unemployed struggle to survive on the streets.

During our stay in Sao Paulo we were inspired to try and understand what these contrasts mean for the people that live there. Specifically, we wanted to meet Sao Paulo's waste pickers, who make a living collecting rubbish and picking out the valuable material for sale.

Street art depicting a catadore, or waste picker.

We first learned about waste pickers, as they are called, through a documentary based in India. We were confronted by the health issues that people working in land fills or collecting on the streets must risk (infected cuts, respitory disease etc). Some waste pickers live and work on municipal dumps – as many as 20,000 people in Kolkata, India. Bear in mind that some of these landfills are massive (Rio closed the world's largest open landfill last year).

Plastic bottles.

We wanted to understand what working on the streets is like for Sao Paulo's poor and to also better understand if and how people are able to make a living from collecting waste.

Our friend Miranda kindly organised a meeting with the Pinheiros Collective, a small group of waste pickers that had a work space near where we were staying.

The Pinheiros Collective was formed by a small group of waste pickers who at the time were either living on the streets or in shared lodgings. Using carts that they pulled by hand, they would walk the streets at night, collecting trash that had been put on the streets by businesses and households. The trash would then be picked through to determine what was valuable and could be onsold.

In effect, the waste pickers provide an informal trash collection and recycling service. They make money by selling materials such as copper, aluminium cans, paper and plastic bottles to companies that can reuse them. We saw that in Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo they contributed to improved environmental sanitation by removing waste from urban areas unserved by municipal garbage collection.

After a chance community event, six waste pickers were inspired to combine their efforts and form a collective. Through a bit of lobbying they secured some council land and by pooling their resources, over time they saved enough money to purchase vehicles to collect rubbish.

The co-op now employs 21 staff. It has successfully sought registration with the government and has been awarded small grants from banks. Working conditions have steadily improved. The staff now use a compactor to compress materials into sellable bricks, where before they had to do it by hand. Work hours are now during the day thanks to the vehicles and a kitchen has been built to serve lunches for the staff.

Compacting equipment.

The impact on their quality of life is impressive. The members of the collective are now earning twice the minimum wage, around USD700 a month, enough to feed a family. They have all moved off the streets and are pooling funding to build humble apartments for their families. Fees are also collected from each member to provide accident/health insurance.

It is not all milk and honey though. Their work place is located under a bridge, which periodically floods and hosts a swarm of mosquitoes. The staff complain of a lingering prejudice against waste pickers and shared stories of bullying from the police. The collective is pushing to be recognised as a legitimate workforce that provides a valuable sevice but struggles to engage with the government.

The Pinheiros Collective is a good case study as it reflects similar group actions taking place across Brazil. Waste pickers are evolving into a politically mobilised and networked labour force. They have a national body that organises events to share success stories and lobby government to recognise their services and remove the social stigma that many waste pickers face.

The collective is an active member of the national catadore network.

It is inspiring stuff. Hope you enjoyed this post. We really appreciated the time given to us by the staff and enjoyed being able to share such a positive story. We think its an interesting model for service provision in poor communities, easily replicated with a bit of support. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

If you would like to learn more about waste pickers we recommend the following as a starting point:

Don't Waste People, a documentary by Julia Waterhouse (forthcoming)

Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising, Waste Pickers

Many thanks to Miranda for her patient translation and shared interest in our slightly unusual idea. We couldn't have managed it without you!

Thanks for reading.

A bit of street art helps lend some humour.