Once... the largest city of South America
Potosí is the highest city in the world at 4,090m, with a population of approximately 120,000 people and is situated in the southern Altiplano of Bolivia where the steppes become the cold desert. It has a harsh climate and a bitter history.
Around 1650, Potosí was the largest city in South America with a population of 200,000, being almost as big as London and Paris. The prosperity of the city came from the silver found in the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) that was mined in this colonial period (1545 – 1825) by miner slaves. Eight million Indian and African slaves died in the mines. The silver disappeared into Spain. At the end of the year 1800, the silver price dropped and that was almost the end of Potosí. When Bolivia gained independence in 1825, the silver mines were all but exhausted.
Tin became the most important export product. Around 1900, the mines were owned by the so-called tin barons who thus, in fact, ruled the economy of the country. Yet again the Bolivian people could not benefit from the gigantic profits.
After the national revolution of 1952 (initiated by the mine workers), the mining companies were nationalized and became the state mining organization, the Comibol cooperative. Working conditions improved considerably.
In 1985, Bolivia suffered its worst economic crisis and the collapse of the price of tin in the world market meant the end of Comibol. 23.000 miners lost their jobs, 7.000 were allowed to stay. The last state mines closed in 1994 and currently there are only a few private enterprises and cooperatives.
From generation to generation
At the present time, zinc, tin lead and a small residual amount of silver are mined. Miners use hundreds of mineshafts to mine these precious commodities, working in conditions which have hardly changed during the centuries. There is no money with which to invest and although Potosí still exists because of the mines, the government does not provide them even the most basic of facilities, such as water and electricity.
Because there are no other sources of income (agriculture is not possible due to the climate and the tradition of mining follows on from father to son), the people continue to work in the mines. There is always the chance that “one day THAT rich vein of silver will be discovered and they will be rich ……. “.