Gasping for air and drenched in sweat, I crawled my way through dark tunnels, climbed down cramped, claustrophobic holes, and waded through giant puddles of water past unsecured lifting holes with 30m drops. The intense heat and suffocating dust were almost unbearable. Visible asbestos and the constant sound of explosions nearby turned me into a bundle of nerves. Stinging fumes and gas, all at an altitude of 4,678m, gave me a splitting headache. As I tackled this challenge during my Potosi mine tour, I couldn’t help but remind myself of the thousands of men, teenage boys, and even children that have to work in these gruesome conditions and in this airless space every single day.

potosi mines tour cerro rico

The Cerro Rico mine

I went on a Potosi mine tour because I was interested in finding out the kind of conditions Bolivian miners have to work in. I wear jewellery, but when I go to a shop and buy a silver necklace I usually don’t give a lot of thought into how the silver was extracted. Through my work in international development I have been exposed to a lot of social injustice, from violence against women or human rights violations, but as labour rights and child labour in particular are big problems in South America I wanted to find out more about these issues.

Before our group entered the mines we were taken to the miners’ market where we could to buy some presents for the miners we were about to meet. Presents can include anything from coca leaves, 98% alcohol, safety gloves, water or even dynamite. Some of these presents may sound weird but because of the difficulty of physical work at high altitude most miners chew coca leaves all day to repress hunger and keep their energy levels high. A lot of miners also drink very strong alcohol which is of course not very safe, but it probably enables them to cope with the dangerous working conditions better. The miners really appreciate these gifts as they have to buy all of their own tools and these tools are not cheap if you are on a low wage. When I gave a miner a new pair of gloves he promptly discarded his existing ones which were completely ripped to pieces, as were his hands.

potosi mines tour guide with dynamite

Our guide was joking around with the dynamite you can buy in every miner’s shop, but when you actually feel the mine shaking around you after an explosion it is not a laughing matter

potosi mines tour

98% strong Pisco, which is drunk by the miners, but is also provided as an offering to El Tio (see below) and Pachamama (Mother Earth)

8 million deaths

I have visited a former coal mine in Germany before, and while working conditions in that mine were tough as well, it looked like a five star resort compared to the mines in Potosi. When the Spaniards colonised Bolivia they forced the indigenous peoples to work in the mines as slaves under such horrific conditions that the Cerro Rico (the rich hill) also became known as “the mountain that eats men”. Conditions today have barely improved and the miners still have to work with very outdated, simple and often homemade tools.

The mine entry marks the threshold to another world, where El Tío, the devil, demands sacrifices of coca leaves, alcohol and llama blood in return for protection. Locals believe that God can’t protect them that far deep in the mines, as this is the home of the devil, so they pray to him for safety instead.

A lot of miners who actually survive the many accidents, collapses, explosions and poisonous gasses are likely to die of lung disease by the time they reach 35. More worryingly, 470 years of mining have left the mountain so riddled with tunnels and sinkholes that it could completely collapse at any moment. Since 1545 as many as 8 million miners have died either in the mines or as a result of illnesses caused by years of mining.

potosi mines tour entrance

The entrance to the mountain that eats men

potosi mines tour tio and ladder

El Tio on the left and a makeshift, wobbly ladder on the right – one of the many basic tools miners have to deal with

potosi mines tour small tunnel

Some tunnels are so low that you can only crawl through them

Child labour

Despite what a lot of tour operators and mining companies tell you, sadly there are still many children working in the mines. Many do so out of sheer poverty and desperation. A lot of children are orphans who lost their fathers in the mines, and to support the rest of their family and to pay for their school fees, they often have no choice but to tempt the same faith as their fathers. In Bolivia an estimated 1 million children and teenagers are working children, 50% under the age of 14.

I have spoken to a local NGO that deals with child miners, called Amigos de Potosi, who aim to create new possibilities outside of the mines for young miners, adults and their wives by providing them with education and alternative employment options. They told me that it is actually very difficult to tell how many child miners there are these days. Some say dozens, some say hundreds and some say there are no child miners at all. Child labour in mines is illegal in Bolivia, so nobody will tell you the truth even if they know about it, as they risk penalties. Mining is considered one of the worst forms of child labour, but mining corporations continue to employ under-aged miners because they are not prevented from doing so by inspecting governmental institutions according to Amigos de Potosi.

If you would like to find out more about child labour in Bolivia or about child miners in Potosi I highly recommend the following two documentaries: The child labourers of Bolivia and the award winning and heart-breaking film The Devil’s Miner.

potosi mines tour shop

Mining shop that provides tiny rubber boots for child miners

potosi mines tour miners houses

Living quarters of the miners

Doing the Potosi mine tour was eye-opening and exhausting – both physically and emotionally – but it also left me with a huge respect for the local miners who work tirelessly to support their families in the knowledge that their job will probably kill them one day. If you would like to support local miners financially then eco-friendly mining tours that benefit the miners directly are available from Koala Tours in Potosi. If you would like to help fight child labour in the Potosi mines then you could support local NGOs such as Amigos de Potosi.

Have you been exposed to child labor on your travels and would you do the Potosi mine tour? If so, tell me in the comment section below.

About Tammyonthemove

Tammy & Chris are a couple hailing from Germany and England, meaning between them they are efficient and polite, but unable to talk about football. Find out why they stopped pushing pens around the British civil service to travel the world on their blog.

66 Thoughts on “The mountain that eats men – A Potosi Mine Tour

  1. What a sobering article, Tammy. Hopefully, the NGOs will help get the word out and labor conditions will improve. 8 million is a pretty staggering figure.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 19, 2014 at 12:33 pm said:

      The figure of 8 million really shocked me too Corinne, but having been to mines now I am surprised it is not more.

  2. I can’t imagine having to work in that kind of danger and rough conditions daily. I don’t wear much jewelry, but I would go on this tour just to see what it’s like for myself too. We haven’t come across any child labor that was that drastic, but in Nicaragua, many children were kept out of school to sell little trinkets to the tourists in cities and borders.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 19, 2014 at 1:37 pm said:

      Yes, this is the most common form of child labor Katie. They are often part of an organised gang. I always get really upset when people actually buy from them, as it just encourages the family of the child to continue sending their children to work rather than school.

  3. What a powerful experience. It truly puts things in perspective when you realize the immense amount of casualties that occurred in and outside the mine. I hope they are able to change things for the children and improve the conditions so they don’t have to work there. Great write up and very powerful stuff.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 19, 2014 at 10:25 pm said:

      It really does Samantha. The Potosi mine is just one of thousands of mines all over the world with such working conditions. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to trace back where the silver of certain jewellery comes from.

  4. Such a moving post! Very true how we only see and buy a finished product, but hardly know the work and life threatening job these miners undertake. And to know the little ones are put to work in these conditions, my heart jitters. In India, there is a similar scenario where children work in firecrackers factory (in a place called Sivakasi) and often they become the prey to all these fire accidents! I wish the world organisations bring up strict safety regulations for miners and abolish child labour.

    • Tammyonthemove on May 19, 2014 at 10:30 pm said:

      That sounds horrible too. A lot of countries actually have laws in place to protect children, but corruption and governments not enforcing these laws sadly is the reality. I agree, the more pressure organisations and even individuals and the private sector put on the government, the better.

  5. It’s amazing that this is a way of life for so many people in Bolivia, and around the world. And, wow, 8 million people — that number is sobering, indeed. This was a really wonderful and eye-opening piece. It’s interesting to get a glimpse into the lives of the men and boys who make their living by working in these awful conditions.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 19, 2014 at 10:33 pm said:

      Thank you Justine. I am glad that you found the post interesting. I wasn’t sure if people would actually be interested in this kind of post.

  6. 8 million people dead – that number is shocking. No one should have to work in those conditions.
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  7. Wow what an eye opening experience…good for you for taking the opportunity to experience that for yourself.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 19, 2014 at 10:36 pm said:

      It was eye-opening indeed. I still can’t stop thinking about it and I visited the mines almost 2 months ago.

  8. Wow! Some pretty scary numbers!! It is so sad to hear that that so many children face the harsh conditions of the mines to support their families.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 19, 2014 at 10:38 pm said:

      I know, the worst thing is that they have no choice. If it wasn’t for NGOs such as Amigos de Potosi there would be even more child miners.

  9. What an interesting, frightening and eye opening experience that was for you. I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to visit myself, let alone work there like the miners do everyday. They have got to be some of the bravest people in the world.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 20, 2014 at 11:55 am said:

      I have the upmost respect for the miners Jen. They know that this job will kill them one day, yet they go into the mines day in and day out.

  10. It’s amazing the safety standards and quality of life that so many of us in the west take for granted.
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  11. One of toughest and most sobering experiences we had in our travels around South America. Most people can’t even imagine the working conditions in a mine like this, 4 thousand meters above sea level. Thanks for this great post, describing so well the experience you had there!
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 20, 2014 at 12:00 pm said:

      Thank you Gabor. I am glad you liked the post. I found even telling people about it they didn`t really understand until I showed them some pictures and mentioned some of the horrific statitics. People in the West are so used to decent labor conditions that it is hard to believe it is not like that in every country.

  12. Paul on May 20, 2014 at 1:51 pm said:

    Good lord… thats horrific! In this day and age, and with all the modern equipment at our disposal, people should not be working in these conditions! You are one brave and tough person Tammy to take a tour through that – Thanks for sharing such a well written and insightful article!

    • Tammyonthemove on May 20, 2014 at 1:55 pm said:

      Thanks Paul! The worst thing is that the mines are often owned by foreign companies who should have enough money to invest in proper tools and safety, but they often don’t give a damn. They are just in it for the money.

  13. It’s hard to believe that in this day and age that people are still working under such horrific conditions and, as a mother, I can’t imagine anything worse than having to send my child out to work in these mines in order for the family to survive. These mining companies should really be held accountable for the injuries and illnesses that the miners are suffering. Thank you for making me aware of an issue that I didn’t know existed.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 20, 2014 at 9:45 pm said:

      Mines are only a small part of labor exploitation. There are garment factories in Bangladesh, the fishing industries in Thailand or construction workers in Dubai. The only way to hold people is accountable is to name and shame them publicly and let the world know about the mistreatment the workers are experiencing. This however needs many people and powerful media, as well as governments doing their bit. So it is not as easy as it sounds, but doable with a bit of time.

  14. How truly terrible. 8 million is such a sobering number. It is so awful how many people are forced into unsafe work in some capacity or another. -Alexandra

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    • Tammyonthemove on May 21, 2014 at 7:58 am said:

      What I find even more horrible is that we only know of a few examples, but this kind of treatment happens all over the world on a daily basis. It happens to adults and children alike and as long long as poverty and desperation exists people will continue to work under these conditions.

  15. It’s a sobering thought Tammy and a painful one.
    Yes, I’ve seen children in uncomfortable situations on my travels. In India, children on the street begging. In Africa, children selling and fetching buckets of water for a fee, shopping and washing for undergraduates, and selling fruit on the streets.
    Even here in Germany where I live, young Romany children being forced to collect tips while their parents sing and dance on the train instead of being at school. Nobody seems to know what to do although, I haven’t seen the kids involved recently.
    Thank goodness.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 21, 2014 at 8:02 am said:

      It is sad Victoria. If children even have to beg in Germany, a country with social safety nets, then to think what children in developing countries must go through is just terrifying.

  16. I remember visiting Potosi and taking a tour of the mine years ago, and being horrified by the consitions and the dangers these miners face every single day. I had no idea that the victims numbered 8 million. Thanks for spreading awareness.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 22, 2014 at 8:04 am said:

      Yes, it is quite shocking if you look at the high number of casualties this mine has caused, Margherita.

  17. Such a great article, Tammy. It’s hard to imagine how hard those little kids have it to do this, amazing really. Thanks for telling their story.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 22, 2014 at 8:06 am said:

      Thanks Linda. I appreciate it. It is such hard and physical work, I don’t know how adults manage it, let alone children.

  18. How sobering. Whilst I would end up wanting to do a similar tour I know that I would come away reflecting heavily on what I buy and where from knowing the conditions that men and children have to work in. As you say we are all very flippant with our purchases not necessarily thinking about the lengths that some people have had to go to in order to produce it for us. This has definitely made me think!
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    • It really made me think too Tam. The problem is that even most high street Jewleres don’t know where the silver comes from – and I don’t think they really care either. There are probably fairtrade Jewleres out there though, so it might be worth looking into that and only buy from those in future.
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  19. Wow, great article and a must read for all those that go to Potosi! Thanks for sharing this sad story!
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  20. I’ve been on a mine tour, but in Colorado, much better conditions than what you’ve described. Even that though showed a hard life. I can’t imagine how difficult working in a mine would be, especially as a child. It’s terrible…
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 23, 2014 at 6:13 pm said:

      The mines in the West have got so much better health and safety regulations thanks to decades of work through unionists. I hope that conditions in Bolivia will change fir the better one day too.

  21. Thanks for sharing. As a miner ( not in a union) I’d caution that virtually all people in modern (Western) industry – managers and owners included, professionals and laborers – wouldn’t stand for such conditions due to much- changed social norms. We’re held to a higher standard, and rightly so. When my kids are 18 I’d have no issue with them working at any of the professionally-managed mines I’ve worked at or visited, including those in the third world. I’ve worked with many leaders, professionals who are very involved with improving conditions and opportunities for indigenous people, and I’m blessed with having great experiences with aboriginal communities myself. I would NOT, however, go myself to illegal mines or those run by any government in the third world, where such conditions exist.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 25, 2014 at 3:38 pm said:

      Thanks for your comment Michael. It is great to get a perspective from an actual miner. Miners have such a hard job, so I agree they shouldn’t put up with these kind of conditions. It is great that you now get the chance to work with indigenous miners. That sounds really interesting and is hugely important work.

  22. What an incredible story! I have seen quite a few people over the years who have posted photos and stories from the Bolivian mines. This is the first time I have read about the true cost to the workers who spend their days underground. It is really sad to hear this is still happening in this day and age. Working hard is one thing – but putting yourself in a situation that will pretty much guarantee an early death is another. Very sad but thanks for shining some light on the issue!
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 25, 2014 at 3:42 pm said:

      Thank you Michael. I think that’s what upset me most. The miners know full well that this job is going to kill them, but they are doing it anyway, because they don’t really have a choice. There aren’t a lot of other jobs around in that area.

  23. Disheartening and amazing the reality that some people live… Great eye opener
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  24. Thank you for sharing your experience Tammy, I think it is important to put a first hand story to where the products we purchase actually come from.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 26, 2014 at 5:10 pm said:

      Thanks Anna. I wasn’t sure if people would be interested in reading about this actually, but being a humanitarian I couldn’t have not written about it, and it seems that there are many people who actually care, which is great.

  25. This is really eye-opening. The conditions sound really terrifying – I can’t imagine working somewhere like this. It really made me think.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 27, 2014 at 8:23 pm said:

      Me neither Jessica. I knew before I visited that the conditions are not very nice, but seeing them with my own eyes still shocked me.

  26. Amazing post. Thanks for raising awareness about the issue, I had no idea about the conditions people have to bear while working in mines in this part of the world…Eye opening.
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  27. Amazing post! I saw a documentary about the mines in potosi a long time ago and I had already forgot about it. Children work is for me heartbreaking.
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 30, 2014 at 9:22 am said:

      I know, and I know from speaking to a local NGO that this work and the tio really scare them, and I don’t blame them. I am 32 years old and I was scared too. It is a terrifying work environment. No child should have to work in these conditions.

  28. lorrie on May 29, 2014 at 8:38 am said:

    you were very brave to go in there I wouldn’t dare for fear it would collapse in on me thank you for that informative article

  29. I have always had the greatest respect for miners that risk their lives daily and go through terrible working conditions to make their living. This must have been a really worthwhile experience for you to understand exactly what these people are going through and as you mentioned, the awareness level around the world is probably not as much as it should be! We hear all the time about the tragic events that take place often in mines, but is anything done about it?
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    • Tammyonthemove on May 30, 2014 at 9:32 am said:

      Me too Chris. It is such hard labor and there are accidents all the time. A few years ago some miners were trapped in a Chilean mine for a few months. Most of them are still so traumatised that they need constant psychological counselling. There are many more accidents like this that don’t even make it into the press.

  30. It’s such a fascinating tour. I was really struck by the high spirits of the miners and the ex-miners who are now guides. Ours was parading around in a zebra willy warmer before we set off!! This was one of the most humbling and interesting experiences I had in South America and I often think of those working conditions if I’m having a ‘bad day’, and how those men find strength in camaraderie. I also have to admit to having done a fair few shots of that really strong Ceibo alcohol by the time I left Bolivia! It’s foul, but it makes for an interesting night!
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    • Tammyonthemove on June 5, 2014 at 9:02 pm said:

      I agree Ari, it was really humbling. I tried the ceibo stuff too. It is not too bad for such a strong spirit. 😉

  31. Suddenly, I’m feeling claustrophobic.
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    • Tammyonthemove on June 6, 2014 at 2:48 pm said:

      I have never been in such a claustrophobic environment Gwenn. I usually don’t have a problem with confined spaces, but that was even pushing my limits.

  32. That was a great experience indeed, Life of a miners are really tough, specially for those children.

  33. That’s really bleak, but eye-opening. It makes us think back that the little things we wear everyday, that we take from granted sometimes, can come from such a hard place. =(
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    • Tammyonthemove on October 5, 2015 at 10:37 am said:

      I know what you mean Andrew. It was a hard place to visit and I left have an enormous amount of respect for the local miners.

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