When I was in Bolivia last year, I was faced with an ethical dilemma: to visit a mine or not to visit a mine?
I’ve always had mixed feelings about visiting mines. On one hand, you are paying a local to show you around and you get a chance to hear the miners’ side. On the other hand, it feels like paying money to see people working in harsh conditions.
In the end I did it, mainly because I ended up in mine city Potosí and was stuck there for two nights. How did I end up there? Well, that’s the thing about traveling: you end up going to places you never heard about, let alone thought about visiting.
I have to say though, talking with the mine workers gave me some insight about the complexity of it all. The mineworkers in the Potosí mine are working there because they don’t have a lot of options. They do work for themselves and that means they can work when they want. ‘Typically, it’s five days a week. Most of them take Saturday off, but some mineworkers can’t afford this,’ the guide told us. She also explained that when a mineworker group digs a side road to the main mine road, that group owns it. The roads are locked when the group isn’t working so that no one can mine it for minerals.
How I feel about tourists visiting mines now I’ve been one myself? Visiting a mine is something I’ll probably never do again. At one point the guide had left us at a crossroads in the middle of the mine. For at least 30 minutes, I was part of a group that was lost in a Bolivian mine (with, may I add, no cell phone connection). But more importantly, it did feel like voyeurisme.
I am glad I did it in Potosí, though. The tour guide was a local and the mineworkers didn’t mind our group of tourists. It felt like some of them wanted to inform us about their working conditions and it was very interesting to hear their story.
We gave the mine workers the softdrinks, coca leaves and food the guide made us buy before entering the mine – something all tourists have to do, which I applaud. The male tourists in my group also had to help the mine workers carrying minerals to the outside world. I offered to help, but was declined with a smirk. Feminism, it’s not yet a thing in the mine of Potosí.