The carcass of western capital

Although the developed world is full of abandoned mining and industrial sites like the Bethlehem steel works, the problems they pose are nothing compared to the difficulties of numerous sites in the third world. Africa is now facing major pollution issues, for instance, but South America has an even longer history of western exploitation.

Now little more than polluted and degraded bare bones left behind by global movements of capital, “El Cerro Rico” in Potosi, Boliva is home to some of the poorest and most desperate people on the planet, yet the silver from El Cerro Rico, mined by indigenous slave labour, supported the Spanish Empire for 250 years and ultimately bankrolled the industrial revolution in Europe. The community and its historic mines and buildings must be one of the most pressing candidates for an adaptive transformation to be found anywhere.

It is hard to exaggerate the role this bleak place has played in creating our world. Seemingly having learnt one small lesson from the Spanish, the current crop of US neocons make sure that the profits of their current colonial pillaging go straight into the pockets of their friends in the US oil and armaments industries. This may also have happened as Spain expanded its empire in the 16th century if not for the fact that the Spanish royals had just kicked both the Muslims and Jews out of their kingdom. This left their agricultural land bare and industry without a base. As a result the Spanish were forced to buy the resources they needed for their conquests from other European countries and in so doing they spread the wealth that they were robbing from the indigenous people of Latin America.

The mineral wealth discovered there during the 16th century provided the European continent with the largest injection of capital it had ever seen.
In its heyday, the riches of Potosi were spirited away to help finance the heavily indebted Spanish empire. During the 17th and 18th centuries this wealth flowed in increasing amounts directly into the coffers of the empire’s major creditors — Dutch and English bankers. It is no coincidence that England and the Netherlands subsequently became major colonial powers and were the world’s first to develop industrialised economies. (more here).

Needless to say, conditions for the workers of El Cerro Rico were nothing short of horrific. The BBC article quoted above says that conservative estimates of the number of people who died working in the mines of Potosi range from 4 to 6 million. In his book “The Open Veins of Latin America” Eduado Galleano places the figure at 8 million. He also gives this figure some context.

The Indigenous people of the Americas added up to no less than 70 million, and maybe more, when the foreign conquerors appeared on the horizon; one and a half centuries later they had been reduced, in total, to only three and half million.

Put these pieces of history together and we can see that the colonial expansion that led to the English arriving in Australia was at least partly funded by the horrible exploitation of the resources and people of Latin America.

The question of the restoration and adaptive reuse of these sites pales in comparison to the centuries of exploitation and environmental degradation. As such a clear example of the way the quest for capital has produced desolation and destruction, Potosi and its Cerro Rico already stand as a major monument to the greed and exploitation that has created the first world.

But if the buildings and mines of Potosi can be put to an alternative use that puts into perspective the scale of what has occurred there, while offering the current crop of miners something more than an early death, then it would surely be the most appropriate use that land has been put to since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

Fortunately UNESCO has recognized something of the great cultural and historical importance of the town and its mines.

Unesco is backing restoration projects for about 2,000 colonial buildings and is monitoring the conservation of the Cerro Rico, where the mining installations dating from colonial times are historic monuments.

Curiously there might be another resource waiting to be reused in and around Potosi. Writing here on the problem of cleaning up the horrible pollution caused by centuries of mining in Potosi Patrick Stack says

one of the best ways to clean up Potosí may be good old capitalism: The heavy metals in the area are prized for industrial use, and the cadmium, lead, and zinc in all those piles of tailings could make a nice profit for a company with the resources to extract them.

We can always hope…

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