Potosí an Ethical Minefield of Tourism Development

Our trip to Potosí was more one of personal curiosity than of tourism interest in this mining town. Despite the fact that during our stay, Potosí was fraught with moral and political circumstances, we wanted to see what role mining still plays in this purpose-built town, and how today it impacts the community and the environment. For ethical reasons we did not descend into the mines, as most tourists come here to do.

The first problem of all is the mining. Potosí, at its peak, was developed by the Spanish colonisers. There is a lack of recorded history of Potosí, but what historians do know is that mining of gold and silver in the area started long before Spanish colonisation with the Inca Empire. Legend has it that the Inca Emperor Huayna Capac started digging almost a century before the Spaniards arrived.

By the end of the 18th century, Potosí was the richest city in South America thanks to the exploitation of gold and silver mining. A fall in silver prices in the 19th century hurt Potosí’s economy to the point where it has never recovered. Today the silver has been depleted and Potosí, although still living off its riches, is no longer the central mining town in Bolivia.

However bearing in mind that Bolivia is a resource rich developing country, the city is still an important contributor to the economy, as the mining of non-renewable resources is still unfortunately the surest (albeit the dirtiest) way to economic development.

Then there is the tourism element. Tourists and travellers of all sorts come to this town now primarily to visit the mines and get a thrill of adventure by going underground into pits.

There is an abundant of tour companies that organise guided tours of the mines. The requirement of these guided tours is that before embarking on your ‘adventure’ you are obliged to sign a disclaimer, freeing the tour company of any legal responsibility should you get injured or worse during your visit. As is often the case in developing countries, a lack of government regulations often leads to a lapse of responsibility on the part of the mining corporations. Mine blasts, falling debris, respiratory problems are all unfortunately too common. The dangers are such that injuries are frequent enough for tour companies to rid themselves of their responsibilities.

The first stop you make is the miners’ village to buy presents for the miners. Guides suggest coca leaves, cigarettes, any little comfort that miners don’t have the luxury of going and buying themselves when they’re down the mines weeks at a time.

The guide then takes you to the mineshafts. This is where you get to meet and greet the miners, who allegedly get a percentage of the profit you paid for the guided tour. In recent times however, there have been rumours that none of this money goes to the actual miners themselves, a polemic of which has resulted in outrage among the mining community.

In addition to the ethical question of mining itself, there are many ethical dilemmas involved in this kind of tourism. The most obvious is that a town in a country that has always heavily relied on mining non-renewable resources for economic development exploits the tourist dollar, which unconscientious travellers are willing to pay for the thrill of going down an underground mine shaft.

I have worked with mining companies on their social and environmental impacts and one of the things that concerns me the most is that mining is fraught with public health dangers. Although underground mining is one of the ‘cleanest’ (if the word can be used) forms of mining, there is still the hazard of mine water run-off polluting rivers and other water sources, as well as air pollution and energy use.

Medical specialists say there are no long-term dangers to tourist health by descending down into the mines for short periods of time. Conversely, it is said that many miners die from cancer or respiratory diseases within 10 years of first descending into the mines. Arguably none of the miners participate in this type of work for personal fulfilment. A BBC interview with one of the miners in 2004 demonstrates the grotesque working conditions that the miners succumb to in order make a living for their families.

As long as tour companies and the local economy is benefiting from this kind of tourism, it will continue, and miners will continue receive the short end of the stick. For a town once built on such an unsustainable (economical and environmental) activity as non-renewable resource mining, it is seemingly now also dependant on mining tourism. There is no doubt that tourism of this kind is unethical and unsustainable for both the community and the economy.

If it weren’t for the heavy emphasis on mining tourism here, the city’s Spanish heritage and impressive architecture could easily attract tourists. Perched at 4,070m above sea level, Potosí, one of the highest cities in the world, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 for its rich heritage and colonial architecture.

Although sustainable development is a palabra extranjero in this part of Bolivia there is an acknowledgement from some that things must change and environmental engineering has recently been introduced in the region’s university, albeit with few enrolments, with the objective of building the region’s capacity in more sustainable development activities.

Old habits die hard and mining has been at the centre of Potosí’s history for as far back as its history is recorded. Perhaps things will one day change for the better, but for as long as mining tourism continues in Potosí, so does the incentive to use the tourist dollar (or Boliviano as the case may be) to exploit workers and the environment.

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2 Responses to “Potosí an Ethical Minefield of Tourism Development”
  1. Ophelia says:

    Superb post.Ne’er knew this, thanks for letting me know.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] century to replace native workers that were dying off from the harsh conditions in the mines in Potosí. The conditions were so horrific that eight million Africans and natives are estimated to have died […]

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