“There are places where no matter how high you lift your head you cannot see the top, and looking below you cannot see the bottom; on one side you see a horror, on another a fright, and everything you see in there is all confusion.”- Bartolome Arzans de Orsura y Vela, History of the Imperial City of Potosi (1703)
Potosi’s colonial past
Brimming with both wealth and death, the silver mine of Potosí is infamous. The discovery of silver in Potosí in 1545 drew the Spanish conquistadors into the lands that now form Bolivia and commenced a period of colonisation, exploitation, slavery, misery and vast (stolen) wealth. During three centuries of colonial mining, Potosí produced half the silver of the New World through the use of African slave labour and the exploitation of the Incan mit’a system of contributed labour. The Spanish colonial forces warped the traditional mit’a system into what was, essentially, a human tax. In exchange for relative peace, the indigenous Quechua and Aymara peoples were compelled to provide a given number of able-bodied men each year to work in the mines. The death tolls were massive and estimates of the total number who died over three centuries of colonial mining in Potosí run as high as nine million.
A stone-walled colonial mine in Cerro Rico
A cursed fortune?
Today, the honeycombed Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) looms over the crumbling colonial town of Potosí still providing a brimming source of both wealth and death to the miners who now “choose” to work there. Rich seams of minerals transect the mountain from east to west and thousands of miners enter the dark maw of the mine daily to seek their fortune. The mine is now owned by co-operatives so each miner’s luck is his own, allowing him to claim and sell the minerals he extracts. The conditions are still appalling and the health implications for the miners are catastrophic, dramatically decreasing their life expectancy. Silicosis pneumonia, caused by the inhalation of silica dust, is one of the primary causes of premature death among the miners in Potosí. There are also cave-ins and exposure to noxious chemicals and gases, including arsenic gas and acetylene vapors, as well as asbestos deposits. Despite the risks, factors including the lure of sudden, great wealth, familial tradition, camaraderie and, sadly, necessity draw approximately 15,000 men from the town of Potosí into the mine every day.
A miner in Potosi’s silver mine
The silver mine of Potosí – a human zoo?
Controversially, a number of tour companies run tours of the working mine shafts. When I started researching the mine, I struggled to find any value in such a tour. The idea of a troop of privileged tourists snapping photos and gawping at men toiling in appalling conditions for pittance struck me as a form of gruesome voyeurism. tourism at it’s worst and,basically, not for us. Then Veimar, our guide in Uyuni, convinced us otherwise. Veimar had worked in the mine in Potosí for 12 years, starting with his father at the age of 7, before he became a tour guide. He spoke of the mine with pride and told us that if we didn’t see the Potosí’s mine, we didn’t see the real Bolivia. Humm interesting! Had I been too quick to judge? Speaking of the mine, his time there and Big Deal Tours, a tour company run and owned by ex-miners, the normally taciturn Veimar lit up. We were persuaded.
Waivers and dynamite
At 8.45am the next day, we meet our guide, Pedro, and get kitted out in our wellies, overalls and hard hats. Pedro’s a bit of a character, full of enthusiasm and slightly odd chat, and harbouring a roaring obsession with Ireland.
Getting ready to go into the mine with an Ireland-obsessed Pedro
We also sign away our lives on a sliver of yellow paper. Explosions, cave-ins, toxic gases and falling debris are all part of the inherent dangers of a mine and the tour company will not be responsible if we don’t come back out again. I look at my signature doubtfully. Hohum..here goes nothing…
We make our way to the Miners’ Market, a labyrinth of make-shift stalls selling everything from juices, to hand-rolled, unfiltered cigarettes, to coca leaves, to 96% proof “potable” alcohol, to dynamite. We pick out some gifts to bring, seemingly inconsequential things but which, according to Pedro, will improve a miner’s shift just that tiny, worthwhile amount.
Lady selling coca leaves in the Miners’ Market
Into the maw of the mine
Knapsacks loaded, we make our way past the mud huts, curious, dust-smudged children and snuffling pigs to the mouth of the mine.
The entrance to the mine
The plan is to walk through the mine shafts from one side of the mountain to the other. I’m not claustrophobic. I’ve a headlamp and an ex-miner as a guide. I’m curious to plunge into its inky darkness.
Damien and I ready to explore!
Pedro leads us through the stone tunnels of a colonial mine, along broken rails, through deep mud and black, stagnant pools. Wavering yellow beams come into sight and the sounds of strained breathing and an uneven clanking echo down the shaft. Two miners pass us, jaws clenched, shoulders hunched, pulling and dragging a sack-laden cart down the misaligned tracks. Sweat runs in rivulets down their faces. Drinks are offered and extra shoulders supplied to force the cart into daylight.
A laden push-cart in the mine
The heart of the mountain and El Tío
We continue onwards. The stonework cedes to unconvincing wooden supports. Debris falls from the increasing low ceiling. Knees flexed and bent double, I follow the faint beams of light ahead. The air is thick with dust and it’s becoming more and more difficult to see, to breathe. My bandanna feels tight around my nose and mouth. The ceiling gets lower still. My mouth is dry and my tongue feels thick. I try to drag air, dust or no, into my lungs. Panic starts to claw at me. The closest exit is about an hour behind me. Another wheelbarrow trundles past, pushed by a boy who looks no older than 14. I think this might be hell.
An approaching miner
Briefly, the passageway gets larger and I can stand up straight. Pedro tells us that we’re about to meet El Tío, the Andean devil and consort of Pachamama. It is he who owns the mine and all the wealth within. Here and now, it’s easy to believe! El Tío (The Uncle) controls this underground realm and the lives of those who mine there. Though Bolivia is a predominantly Catholic country, often that Catholicism mingles with and exists alongside deeply held Andean beliefs. Shrines to El Tío are dotted throughout the mines here and, daily, the miners perform a cha’lla, or offering, of cigarettes, coca leaves and alcohol to El Tío in the hope that he will spare their lives and provide them with riches. We round a corner and there he is, fanged with gleaming eyes and wielding an enormous phallus.
El Tío, the lord of the underworld
The ladders and lives of others
Pedro next leads the way to a series of wooden ladders that stretch up into the darkness. Up we climb, backs brushing the sides of the tunnels. At the top of one ladder, we blindly reach for the next. At one point, I find myself trembling over three stories of absolute darkness.
Pedro tells us of the value of the mines and the pride with which the miners work there. Eyes shining, he tells us that all you need is a little piece of luck and millions lie just within reach. He tells us of rich miners in town and of miners earning more than policemen and other government workers. He tells us of the pension his mother gets and the health insurance system the miners can opt to pay into. Pedro tells us that he likes life in the mine, the coca leaves, the camaraderie. He still chooses to come in the tourism low-season to work alongside his brothers and cousins. We see him laugh and mess around with the miners and it is, somehow, believable. Somehow. Listening to Pedro, you forget for a minute where you are – the mine sounds like Disneyland.
Stalactites in a mine shaft
Then, we start sloughing our way through the mud again, hunched over and sweltering. This is not Disneyland.
Miners hard at work hand-drilling holes for dynamite
Relief and unease
As we stumble into daylight and fresh air at the end of the tour, my head is reeling. The experience was far from the human zoo, I had dreaded. Instead, the miners were grinning and friendly, happy to accept drinks and coca leaves in the middle of a hot, interminable shift. There is an uneasiness that doesn’t lift though. I’ve seen the sweat, dirt and misery behind my pretty silver baubles and I feel incredibly naive. At the same time, I realise that in the barren uplands of Bolivia, Cerro Rico has been both a blessing and a curse. Should I stop buying silver? Would that then rob a livelihood from these people? I don’t know. I do know that I’m glad that I did the tour and feel privileged to have had a glimpse into the working lives of Potosi’s miners, icons of Bolivia.
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Photo: Peter Müller
Kindernothilfe (KNH) – Help the Children, is a German aid organization striving for better living conditions and alternative income sources for the children of Potosi. 400 youths now receive medical care, extra healthy food, school lessons and school materials. In addition, their parents learn how to read and write and participate in vocational training courses.
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