Under the conquistadores, fabulous riches flowed from the silver mines of Potosi. Now indigenous folk struggle to scratch out a living from the dregs.
Potosi was once considered as wealthy as Paris. Today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d walked into the wrong city. Beyond the pleasant colonial square and a few religious buildings, there are few impressive features. Only on the horizon do you notice the key to Potosi’s fame: a mountain scarred with the multicolored spoil and till of almost 500 years of silver exploitation.
They call this mountain Cerro Rico - rich hill. In the centuries after the Spanish conquerors discovered it in the 1500s, 137 million pounds of silver were mined here, turning Potosi into one of the biggest, richest cities in the world. By the 17th century, the population had swelled to nearly 200,000.
Then in the early 1800s, silver production began to decline. Potosi’s wealth, and its wealthy rulers, started drifting away.
The people of Potosi still believed in the wealth of Cerro Rico, and the much-depleted mountain is still worked today. But most foreigners now come for sightseeing, not conquest or silver.
Nor have the primitive, unpleasant working conditions changed much, since the Spanish first made their fortunes here.
Into the Mine
Our group of seven gathers at a small stall in the Miner’s Market, a few streets at the outskirts of town. We’re encouraged to buy a few items to distribute to workers we meet: treats like coca leaves and orangeade, and more practical items, like dynamite and fertilizer. I have mixed feelings about this, because in some places giving by tourists seems to discourage industriousness, and encourage begging.
When the Spanish first discovered silver here, forced labor ensured high productivity. While every worker now enters the mines freely, working conditions are still arduous.
We are kitted out in overalls, hardhats and headlamps and driven up the steep sides of Cerro Rico, with its stunning views down to the city and over the surrounding mountains.
A few adobe huts - storage for the miners’ work gear - are dotted around the entrance. Two rail tracks lead into a small hole in the side of the mountain.
A steady wind blows from the city, yet none of us are keen to seek protection inside the mine. The small dark entrance seems to summarize all the stories we have heard about this place.
I want to see for myself, but I don’t want to go in first.
Our guide Eusabio worked in the mines for several years. A large man, he is among the few miners who found other work before contracting silicosis of the lungs, known here as mal de mina.
The average Potosi miner works for just 10 years before ill health drives him from the mine. A miner’s life expectancy is only 40 years, we were told; if lucky enough to escape accidents, constant exposure to poisonous gases takes a toll. Once debilitated by silicosis, the miners receive pensions. But it’s already too late for them to enjoy the short life left to them.
Eusabio leads the way into the darkness. We flick on our headlamps and follow. There is an immediate stillness as the wind disappears, and we follow a narrow passage, about three feet wide and five feet high. The only sounds come from the plod of our boots on the dirt, and the hiss of leaking air pipes that supply compressed air to the miners’ tools.
Since I’m over 6 feet tall, I am crouching. And cautious.
Narrow rail tracks, installed to run the heavy ore carts to the stores outside, run through the tunnel. They must be pushed by hand.
The tunnel widens, and dozens of miners pass us. The tunnel is an arch of carefully-placed blocks, created when this mine was dug some 200 years ago.
The entrance (or more vitally, the exit) is the most important part of the mine, and extra care is taken to shore it up. We saw far less attention to detail inside.
Most miners wear no special safety clothing beyond hardhat. Some carry just small flashlights, others have gas-powered torches. As antiquated as these look (and they are old; many passed down through generations), they are surprisingly effective. A flickering flame can also alert a miner to an oxygen shortage.
Close to each entrance, there is a shrine. In one small opening we see a figure that seems appropriate for such a hellish place. It’s nonetheless a surprising sight, in a place so devoid of anything other practical accoutrement.
Praying to El Diablo
Adorned in streamers and a confetti of coca leaves, gently illuminated by the numerous torchlights, is life-sized papier mache statue of the devil. He has huge red horns, a wide, smoking mouth–from the several cigarettes placed there-and a large erect penis, symbolic of fertility. Virtually all the miners are Catholic, and know that God is in the heavens and the devil is below. So here, in a strange twist on traditional religion, they pray to el diablo for their success and safety.
Once a week the miners gather here to pray for safe and productive seams, as one’s work area is known. Our guide prayed for us, too: “Please no cave ins, no dangers, keep these people safe.”
“And send me more Japanese tourists,” he added as an afterthought. “Good tips,” he said, by way of explanation.
We crouch, then crawl on our bellies over rocks and dirt, as the tunnel narrows. We emerge into another mine, just one route in the maze that links the 300 or so mines that snake their way within Cerro Rico.
“They meet up by mistake sometimes,” Eusabio said. “Usually there is no one here when they drill through.”
“What happens if there is?” I asked. He gives me a sad smile and a shrug - a ‘that’s life’ gesture he used almost every time the question of safety or accidents was brought up.
Since the Spanish first started exploiting this mine in the 1500s, an estimated eight million people have died from working here: from accidents, lung disease or poisoning, but mainly from mercury, used in silver production. It seems no one denies the danger of working here. But no one speaks of it openly, either.
We catch our first sight of miners at work, unloading a derailed cart. They tell us the cart narrowly missed falling on their legs. We see that familiar shrug again. We gather ’round the cart in an attempt to lift it back on to the tracks, but it’s hopeless. The ore weighs too much for seven men to move it even an inch — and we leave the three miners to shovel out the ore, right the cart, and then refill it.
Easy to Get Lost
Though unsettling, these dark tunnels are fascinating. They vary from solid stone to loose dirt and earth, and are scarred by the marks of drills and picks, shining with the speckled deposits of silver or other metals that lay within.
Guided only by the light of our torches, it is easy to lose sight of those in front of me; I struggle to keep up. Were I to get lost in this labyrinth, my only chance of survival would be finding a worker to guide me out. But with huge areas of this mine unworked, I fear it could be a long time before I met anyone.
Most holes in the floor are large enough to swallow a foot, but others could easily consume a man. In the dark their depth is impossible to guess.
Only as we progress deeper into the mine do we get a true feeling for what a hellish place this is. The air gets hotter, and breathing becomes difficult, in some places because of the heavy dust but more often from the noxious gases. A dull ache that began in my throat shortly after we entered has turned into a sharp pain; with every breath, hot needles poke my throat and lungs.
After about an hour we come to the working face of the mine. Piles of dirt and ore lie on the ground, while three men shovel the minerals into rubber baskets. These flimsy baskets, once full, are hoisted to the level above with a basic pulley system; the only evidence of which we could see was a wire hook that slowly lowered, was attached to the buckets, and lifted again.
The bags of ore were hosted directly above our heads. I wondered how often the bags or cable broke, or the hook slipped. But the miners continued to work, apparently unconcerned about the huge weight dangling precariously above. I found myself trying to back into the solid wall behind me, every time a bag rose, and swayed above.
The air gets hotter. Some workers wear dirty cloths over their noses and mouths. With temperatures topping 100 degrees F, covering one’s face makes it feel even hotter, so only a few wear proper masks.
“They also make it difficult to smoke,” Eusabio jokes. But hand-rolled cigarettes droop from the mouths of several workers.
Each miner has a wad of coca leaves wadded into one cheek. The leaves help them withstand the harsh conditions, made no easier by the high altitude, and ease them through a day without food (the miners believe abstaining from eating keeps them alert). The extended cheek from constant coca leaf chewing is a physical characteristic of the high-altitude miner.
All around us men shovel ore, while others, forced into narrow shafts, hack at the walls with small manual tools. Others push carts down the various tracks, disappearing into the darkness of constant noise and vibration of drilling.
As we walk deeper in to the mine and pass more people at work, I feel increasingly uncomfortable. We often have to stand aside as an ore cart runs down the tracks - with just inches of room between the heavy cart and the tunnel walls. In other places, our passage interrupts shoveling and digging.
I realize our gifts are little compensation for the inconvenience we are causing.
A young man offers me his hand and smiles warmly, welcoming me to “my life.” At 19, Jose has been working in the mine for almost three years. His jovial attitude seems at odds with the terrible conditions here.
“He has just joined the cooperative and hopes to find a good seam,” Eusabio explains, before quietly adding, in English, “many think this. Then, after awhile they realize few are that lucky.”
Poverty, Hunger and Luck
Many miners are members of a cooperative, set up after the Bolivian government introduced incentives for mining in 1987, a time when this mind had all but closed, due to low productivity. There are now about 50 cooperatives here, the members sharing in the profits from the silver they find.
Each miner is assigned a “face,” to work, and luck plays a major part in its productivity.
The average working day is around eight hours long - modest hours by South American standards - but these can stretch into double shifts, or more.
“If a miner has a poor face, then he can work all day, all night, and make no money,” Eusabio told us. “However, the next day, he might get lucky - he may even employ others to help him work a good face.” Most coop members earn $4 to $6 per day. The ore is typically sold to local processing plants.
Members often work alone, bringing in outside help if they need assistance with a rich dig; casual laborers make up about 70% of the work force.
We offer José the dynamite we’ve brought. He examines it carefully, measuring the length of fuse against his arm. “One meter. Good, thank you,” he says, and again he shakes our hands warmly as we leave.
As he disappears into the darkness, I’m struck by the thought that, by the time Jose reaches my age, his working life will probably be over; if he is lucky, he may work into his 30s. He is a cheerful and bright young man, and I hope he’ll find a job outside the mine.
Cerro Rico is Potosi’s largest employer, and attracts people from all over Bolivia. They’re not seeking fortunes; they’re just after a small wage. Their work keeps this mine alive.
It’s a terrible place that Potesi can’t afford to lose, no matter how high the human cost.
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