Flora Hastings, a UCL student, first travelled to Potosi, Bolivia, in 2011. After meeting Julio Zambrana, and speaking to him about his activism for the miners and the conditions of Cerro Rico mountain, she wanted to find a way to promote the foundation he planned to set up. This would provide education for the children of miners. In 2015, Flora was given a UCL Travel Grant and spoke to Julio over the course of three days in Potosi. There are not many ex-miners within Potosi who have the funds or platform to found a foundation, and Nuevo Amanecer Para Los Niños (The Dawn for the Children) needs as much exposure as possible.
Open and Closed Dialogues – The Miners of Cerro Rico, Evo Morales and the Plurinational Voices of Bolivia
Clashing conceptions of progression within Bolivia
Papa Francisco sweats with altitude sickness. In the world’s highest city, thousands of Bolivians have waited 8 hours for his hallowed wave in the August of 2015. While the Pope stands on the steps of La Paz’s main Cathedral in the colonial-style architecture of Plaza Murillo, the clock on the adjacent Congress Building ticks backwards. Evo Morales’ support was perhaps with the ticking hand, whose anti-clockwise movement is meant to help the Bolivian people rediscover their sarawi, which means ‘way’ in Aymara. Morales remained within the Cathedral as the Pope stepped outside. His skepticism towards his country’s Catholicism, a religion for him representative of the colonial past, is known. However, the noise of his absence was drowned in the warring selfie-sticks of the crowd.
This visual cacophony of the country’s national identities reflect the past and present state of Bolivian politics, and Morales own compromised position as he attempts to retain amicable relations with the West and China, while appeasing the demands of many of Bolivia’s thirty-seven indigenous groups for a greener and more localised economy.
Three terms ago, Morales was elected as the first indigenous president of Bolivia. For many Bolivians, Morales election meant the escape from the Neoliberal policies of the 1980’s and 90s, and the return to a more self-governing economy that slowed down an infrastructural transformation of the countries’ rural areas. The character of his campaign running up to his 2006 election would have opposed the building motorways to attract a growth in foreign oil and gas companies, although this stance has been relaxed progressively within his 10 years as president.
Morales tenets were committed to the previously sublimated voices of the countries many indigenous groups, which in turn meant a shunting of foreign pressure to gear the economy to a model focused on transnational trading and a privatised market. Evocative of Bolivia’s 1952 socialist revolution, where three miners were incorporated into the cabinet as representative of the worker’s rights under a newly nationalised mining sector, Morales re-nationalised three of the countries biggest mines in his first term.
Yet the meaning of progression within Bolivia is fraught. If the clock hand is moving anti-clockwise, it is still tethered to a larger structure. Wealthier regions within Bolivia, such as Santa Cruz, may see progression as encouraging private companies to invest in and expand the vast mineral resources of the country, a movement supported by the IMF, while more populist support opts for a socialist model of nationalising Bolivia’s major sectors and restricting the amount of foreign investment. It is not clear-cut, and Morales has to juggle between these conflicted interests; new balls are added, some are dropped.
The cost of Bolivia’s conflicting interests on the Mines of Cerro Rico
The labourers in Cerro Rico mines, estimated at about 22 thousand, are either part of a co-operative, contracted by the state or by private transnational companies. This clash of employment systems speaks of Morales’ own difficulty in navigating between the invested interests in Bolivia. He kept the mountain privatised after it was deemed ‘not profitable’ enough to remain nationalised in the 1980’s, leaving the co-operatives to be exploited by the private interests of U.S. companies such as Coeur Mining Inc.
Co-operatives, with no fixed salary, poor working conditions and tunnelling into the most dangerous parts of the mines, barely have time to form unions and demand more rights. in 2011, Morales deemed the co-operatives ‘anti-national’ through signing contracts with Couer’s mining company, and yet the government is fiscally pressured into allowing these private companies to invest $240 million dollars into the mountain as part of their profits go to the state – mining is Bolivia’s second largest source of income.
The dust is thick in the mines, and vision is impeded. Transparency needs to be enhanced on all aspects of the mountain. The logistical chaos of the mines prevent the enhancement of job security and an open political dialogue about the working conditions for miners. As it stands, the main dialogue between Morales and the miners is through violent protesting.
The president has not heeded many of the 26 demands from the miners’ protest in 2014, which are mainly geared towards the growth in employment possibility through the investment in public infrastructure within the region. If Cerro Rico is not going to be re-nationalised, and the top levels of the mines are collapsing in after their 500 years of exploitation, than the miners’ plea for public infrastructure is a plea for a secure future.
The Conditions of Cerro Rico Mines – past and present
Inside Potosi’s Cerro Rico, the destructive quality of the misfire of communication between the miners and Morales is visceral. Cutting streams through the heavy dust, our head lamps trace the bumpy caverns of the mines. Poor ventilation fills your mouth with crystalline silica dust quicker than words can come out. Far away vibrations rise through my feet as we stand silently at the convergence of 6 veins, listening to the explosions of dynamite as the miners furrow deeper into the mountain. El Tio, or the demonic protectorate of the mines resides on a makeshift throne in a lower level of the mountain.
Catholicism does not pierce to the farthest enclaves of the mine. Inside Pachamama or ‘the mountain that eats men’ the miners sacrifice cocoa leaves and absinthe to the Lord of the underground, protecting them from Silicosis and the mountain’s collapse. The names that attempt to humanise the mountain speak of the desire to comprehend the death toll of its ancient precincts – since the 16th century, 8 million miners have died.
Silver, tin and mineral have been extracted from the five-thousand meter mountain since the 16th century, when Spanish colonialists shipped thousands of African slaves to mine along with Incas and other indigenous groups of Potosi’s region. Through the windows inlayed within the meter-thick stone walls of the National Mint of Bolivia, where silver was hammered into coins to be shipped back to Spain bearing the mark ‘P’, the mountain today is peppered with trucks and the shacks of miners that live near the entry holes of the mine’s veins.
The miners of Cerro Rico
Julio Zambrana worked in a co-operative mine at the age of eighteen, and now runs an ethical tour group, pledging 15% of each ticket to the miners he visits. He showed me the palms of his hands, still callous from when he forgot to wear gloves as he slid down a wench into the lower levels of the mines. ‘I was not spider man or Rambo, I was eighteen’, Julio laughs.
Julio worked in the same co-operative as Guillermo Cruz, which today is composed of roughly 250 workers. Unlike Julio, who managed to attend university, Guillermo remained in the mines. His children and grandsons have become miners as well. The family of thirteen live in a two-room shack in the miners’ region, so high up the mountain that the cold bites compared to the pinch within the centre of Potosi.
Climbing up through the miners’ Sunday market, selling second-hand toys from the U.S. and China, we ascend to their home. From the family’s concrete roof, you can see the bare Andes mountains whose altiplano wind leave windburn on the cheeks of Guillermo’s ten grand-children. Martina Alejo Cruz, the grand-mother, cries as she looks North across the mountains. The mountain steals years from her family – the average life expectancy of a miner is 40 years through the scourge of Silicosis.
Morales needs to heed the calls of the miners
When Morales was elected president in 2006, many of Bolivia’s miners envisaged close government relations, replicating the MNR’s triumph (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement) after the Revolution of 1952. Morales, however, is in conversation with more voices than in the 1950’s, as his presidency is unique for the extent of his adherence to the demands of Bolivia’s indigenous groups. Renamed the ‘Plurinational state of Bolivia’ in 2014, it is the pluralistic nature of Bolivia that prevents Morales from easily adopting one policy towards Cerro Rico, leading the miners to suffer.
If Morales heeds the calls of Potosi’s miners for a growth in public infrastructure, he may anger the environmental calls of the indigenous leaders and anger the private and foreign companies that have invested millions of dollars in the mines, but he will save thousands of lives. “I hate Evo Morales”, Julio declared. If Morales blames the co-operatives for their ‘anti-national’ deals with private companies, than the miners blame Morales for the working conditions and lack of employment options that force them to shake hands with the private companies that exploit them.
To read about Julio Zambrana and his plans for a new foundation click here
This article will be on www.florahastingsphotography.com permanently. You can also find a link to the foundation’s website there when it goes live.