Mining in Potosi

Miner Serafin Sallama Copa | Photo by Kate McDonald
Miner Serafin Sallama Copa | Photo by Kate McDonald

This piece was written by Mary Stucky, founder of Round Earth Media, before the Next Generation Journalism model was established. To read more about the model, visit the main site here.

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Originally broadcast on The World on November 5, 2009

Last year, mining companies in Bolivia doubled their profits, thanks to soaring price of minerals. Despite that, Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. That’s because most miners don’t work for big mining companies. In Bolivia, miners usually form themselves into what they call cooperatives and pick through what’s left after the big mining companies pull out. There is virtually no government oversight of this industry and miners work under appalling conditions that have hardly changed in 500 years. 50 thousand mostly men toil in the mines of Bolivia. This is the story of one of them.


The following is a transcript of Mary Stucky’s radio report. To listen to this broadcast, please click on the play button above.

The city of Potosi sits in a mountainous region with a long history of mining, stretching back to the 1500s. Silver from deep within the Cerro Rico mountain, which looms over the city bankrolled the Spanish empire. But it cost the lives of thousands of Indian and African slaves sent to their doom in the mines. Native people here call the Cerro Rico … the mountain that eats men.

Today, the silver here has mostly been tapped out over 500 years of continuous mining. Miner Serafin Sallama Copa says they’re digging for zinc and lead now.

I’m following Serafin into the Cerro Rico’s Candelaria mine. Here miners work together, in what they call cooperatives, sharing the costs and dividing the take….what little there is. I crouch my 5 foot 9 inch frame into the tunnel. About 13 hundred feet in, it’s pitch black except for a dim light from my headlamp.

(hissing sound) That’s the sound of a leaky air hose for the compressor that powers the miner’s rudimentary tools… it’s claustrophobic down here and hard to breathe. We pause to talk.

Serafin Salama (speaking Spanish): “It’s dangerous mining. Further in you have to crawl through tiny spaces. It’s very dangerous because of the gasses and also because of the particles in the air that asphyxiate you.”

Mary Stucky: Serafin is a 31 year old father of two young sons—his wife is pregnant with their third child. He’s been mining for 12 years now and has a deep affection for his fellow miners.

Serafin Salama: “I’ve had so many experiences working alongside my brothers in the mine. We’ve had moments when we’ve been really worried about whether we would earn enough money and other times when we have found very good metals. We’ve had ups and downs but we’ve shared so much.”

Mary Stucky: Serafin seems at home in this dark world full of strange, threatening sounds. Here miners have to outrun wagons loaded with a ton of rock, barreling down a dark, narrow passageway, without lights or breaks… crushing anyone in their way.

Serafin Salama: “When you’re coming in by foot you can sometimes feel it, if you’re walking on the tracks they will start to move a bit and you can feel a wagon is coming.”

Mary Stucky: One of Serafin’s co-workers died when a wagon ran over him. Mining here is done the old-fashioned way….without any regulations of the kind that protect miners in the U.S. and other industrialized nations. Sticks of dynamite are still used to blast through the rock, creating the danger of cave-ins not to mention a lot of dust which makes it hard for miners to breathe .

At home, Serafin’s wife is cooking in their one room house… waiting for him to return from work. She worries about his safety. The life expectancy of a miner here is 45 years. Many die from silicosis, also known as black lung disease. Most work without masks, and other protective equipment. That’s because miners have to buy those items themselves and they’re expensive. Serafin covers his mouth with a handkerchief and says some miners don’t even do that much.

Serafin’s wife Elsa knows the harsh realities of mining.

Elsa Salama (speaking Spanish): “I had a friend from high school married to a miner and he died in an accident. She was left a widow just 20 years old and she had three children. It’s a very dangerous and difficult job but it allows us some income so our children can study and improve their lives a little bit.”

Mary Stucky: But just a little. The cooperative miners are organized into groups and paid based on how much they take out of the mine. Serafin usually makes about five dollars a day. On really good days he can make 15.

Serafin Salama: “All of the hard work I do is to make sure my children can have opportunity because I don’t want them to work as I have in such difficult work as mining.”

Mary Stucky: As the boys and Serafin gather together around their small table, Elsa serves them a soup made of vegetables and a little meat. They dig in, and Serafin smiles at the boys. The older one says he’d like to be a doctor when he grows up… a dream which keeps Serafin going down in the mine.