In this thoughtful study, Carlos Contreras examines the relationship between silver miners and the peasant labor force at the Cerro de Pasco from 1790 to 1920. Building on recent work on mining in Peru, the author examines how miners at Pasco became dependent on merchant capital and a largely migrant labor force, recruited from Amerindian peasant villages in the central sierra. This process limited capital accumulation, investments in technology, and the overall evolution of the industry in Peru.
Mineros y campesinos en los Andes first examines how independence disrupted the development of the silver mining industry in Peru. The republican governments ended subsidies for labor, mercury, and credit, which forced miners at Pasco to depend on merchant finance capital. Moreover, in the absence of a functioning labor market, the miners relied on high wages, incentives, and temporary labor contracts to attract three thousand workers yearly from the Andean peasant communities of the central sierra. The miners depended on a small core of skilled resident laborers to extract the ore, supplemented by larger numbers of temporary migrant workers. These practices were expensive, however, leaving little capital for reinvestment, particularly in technological improvements. The more capital-intensive refining process was undertaken by large-scale operators on haciendas, populated by a resident labor force. The entire mining operation at Pasco continued to attract peasant labor from the central sierra, particularly before production declines after 1849. Most Amerindian peasants were drawn to Pasco, when they could be spared from village agricultural activities, to secure cash for their tax burdens, religious festivals, and goods purchased in the market economy. As a result, the peasant agrarian economy and the mining sector enjoyed a mutual dependency, which remained undisturbed until the industry fell under foreign control after 1920.
In this work Contreras provides a stimulating analysis of the struggling mining industry at Pasco, but too often he lacks the data to support his ambitious assertions. The archival holdings at Pasco are limited to the late nineteenth century, which forces him to rely heavily on newspapers and published documents of the mining tribunal and the provincial government. As a result, the data included on mining production or the structure of the industry are limited. In addition, his analysis of the forces leading Andean peasants to work in the mines would have benefited from additional regional data on the structure of agriculture and village life. Nevertheless, such documentary gaps have plagued many studies of nineteenth-century economic history, and Contreras has written a study that poses a number of important questions for future research.