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Thirty-nine year-old Margarita Cañaviri and her two daughters Abigail and Julia sift through the discarded debris of the rubble that is rejected by the other miners. Her husband died from years of exposure to the dust and the dirt of underground mining. The debts accrued from his long illness let her with no option but to sift through discarded food in the refuse heaps of Potosi. Such is life for the poor of Bolivia.
At 13,000 feet above sea level, Potosi in Bolivia is the highest city in the world. An UNESCO site, the mountain that overshadows the city also holds one of the richest deposits of silver and other metals in the world. When the Spanish conquistadores stumbled upon this area nearly five hundred years ago, they were simply astounded at the vast wealth in these mountains. They named the mountain the Cerro Rico or Rich Hill and the silver from that mountain contributed in no small way to the opulent lifestyles of the colonial Spanish aristocracy of the time. It also fuelled the European 18th century industrial revolution. And the minerals from these hills continue to fuel 21st century manufacturing far from Potosi.
But for the miners who have worked the mines for over 500 years now few benefits have accrued to them. Working condition were atrocious during what was known as the age of discovery (while nobody really knows for sure An estimated eight million African and Indian slaves perished in these mines) and since then not a lot has changed. Deep in the mines, in temperatures of up to forty degrees and with barely enough oxygen to survive, between fifteen and twenty thousand miners toil daily. Early mortality is still a feature of miners’ lives. Many succumb to the slow painful death from silicosis and while the accident rate is no longer what it was once like, there is still a high attrition rate.
Dissatisfaction with the way in which the vast majority of Bolivia’s population, particularly its indigenous people, were denied any rewards from the enormous wealth that was being generated from Bolivia’s natural resources swept Evo Morales to power in January 2006 – the first indigenous president in its 470 year existence. Morales has vowed to shift the balance of power in favour of the poor of Bolivia.
He is willing to work with multinationals but as equals. And that has become his motto “partners not masters”. The old policies, the neoliberal policies that he believes protected the interests of a rich elite no longer prevail. But the poor are impatient and the old ruling order are looking for every opportunity to undermine Morales. Whether or not he can pull it off remains to be seen. But as of now, nothing much has changed for Margarita Cañaviri and her two daughters.