lørdag 10. september 2011

Potosí: To travel or not to travel

PLACE: POTOSI, BOLIVIA


Gonzalo Marino is 18 years and have worked four years in Cerro Rico.

Few places will test your coinscience like Potosí. The mining town on the Bolivian altoplano is part of "the gringo trail" in Bolivia. At the same time, these mines are among the worst working places of South America - and the world.

And these very mines are the tourist attraction.

Thus, in Potosí you go sightseeing in this world's darkest corners. As a tourist you put on helmet, boots and protective clothing, and poke around in a tour group among the poor miners who have to work there.

The tourists do it because they can. The miners because they must. And while the tourists are more than satisfied when they leave the mine three hours later, the miners must go there every day, in long shifts, until their lungs cannot stand it anymore. Most miners get silicosis and die, at young age, the majority after 25-35 years in the mines (other sources give lower numbers, some as low as 10-15 years).

Is this OK? Can you, as a tourist, defend morally that poor people are turned into a "tourist attraction"?

The blogger Aracely of 2Backpackers is in doubt, but finally concludes with a hesitating yes.

My yes is firmer. Yes, there are many problems both with the Potosí tours and with guided tours into slums and favelas. But on the other side: Wouldn't it be even worse if tourists only kept to their privileged rich man's bubble, with air-con, longdrinks and high fences to keep reality out?


As a 12 year old Julio Vera was child worker in the mines. Now he is a guide,
showing among other things how the miners make offerings to the devil, El Tio.

Shouldn't travellers try to learn a little about how life is for the people they visit? That kind of informed tourism is what the human rights organisations wanted when I asked them about travelling in suppressive regimes this spring (sorry, link is in Norwegian).

The harsh reality exists anyway.

If you choose to see it, respectfully, you can - if nothing more - show solidarity with the people whose destiny was sealed when they were born in Bolivia, Botswana or Burkina Faso instead of in Boston or Bournemouth.

Another thing is that the tourist industry gives people more options, also in Potosí. My guide, Julio Vera, had been a miner himself, starting when he was 12. Now he is a tourist guide.

That's social mobilty in practice!

I am not so sure that the miners mind the onlookers so much either. From this photo it doesn't look like 71 year old Don Panco bear any grudges - as he has just started his 24 hours shift.


More of my photos from Potosí can be found here (again, text in Norwegian).

PS! For the best preperations before a tour in the mines, I recommend the documentary The Devil's Miner about child workers in Potosí's silver mountain Cerro Rico.