Les Trois Escargots

A growing family of snails.

Monday, October 30, 2006

I am rich Potosi, envy of kings

Potosi is the highest city in the world and perhaps the one with the most tragic history. Its location in the middle of the barren altiplano of Bolivia is solely due to Cerro Rico, a conical mountain just to the south. Cerro Rico was the richest source of silver that has ever existed. Initial mining by the Spanish was based on surface extraction and primitive processing methods, but the mining was eventually forced underground as deposits grew scarcer. However, with dams to power machinery, mercury refining and an Inca-based system of compulsory labour (one seventh of the male population of Bolivia were sent annually to the mines), silver production boomed. In 1658, for the Corpus Cristi celebrations, the streets were literally paved in silver. But the silver boom passed and, although Potosi cashed in on the subsequent global increase in tin price, it was the start of a long term decline and Cerro Rico is today mined on a near subsistence basis by cooperatives of miners. Dependant on mining and yet acutely aware that their life expectancy is just 45, they have no choice, but to work underground in extremely dangerous and basic conditions.

Tours of the mines start at the miners’ market on the lower slopes of the mountain. Dressed in wellies, overalls and hard hats, we were shown how green Bolivian dynamite is rolled into a ball and stuffed into a bag of nitrate fertiliser to make a powerful explosive. A gunpowder fuse, burning at 20 cm per minute, completes the bomb. The whole thing costs just over a pound and its purchase (and use) is legal in Bolivia. It was the quickest lesson in terrorism that I have ever had! At the market, we bought coca leaves, explosives and soft drinks for the miners; 96% alcohol as a gift to the gods.

The mine entrance was splattered with llama blood, part of the annual sacrifice to El Tio, god of the underworld. We walked between steel rails for the wagons of ore pushed by sweating men, the lamps on our helmets casting weak pools of yellow light. After twenty minutes, we stooped into a side tunnel and sat on lumps of rock in front of a stone-carved El Tio – a red, horned devil with cigarette and proud erection. Rolando, our guide, explained that the Catholic God has no power underground and that offerings are made to El Tio to protect the miners from cave ins, explosions and dangerous gases. We toasted him with near pure alcohol which burnt my lips and throat.

From the first level, we scrambled down a hole in the floor, twisting between fractured rock, to the hot and dusty second level. Three of our group decided that the dark, caustic and claustrophobic environment was too much and the second guide led them to the surface. Down to five, we crawled onwards, hardly believing that the miners dragged ore through these passages, until we climbed a small gully and talked to a miner making holes in a rock face for dynamite. It would take him at least 4 hours to manually hammer each hole with a steel crowbar. On the third level, we found the ghost of a 13 year boy working with five men and watched him gulp down coca cola, spilling it in dark patches on his t-shirt in his urgency. There are perhaps 2,000 children working in the mines and, with silicosis destroying the lungs of most miners, most would not live to see their grandchildren.

After a couple of hours, we crawled on hands and knees back to the first level and drew deep breaths of the cooler, cleaner air. At 4,000 metres above sea level and wearing masks against the arsenic dust, we had all struggled to breathe and stepping back into fresher air was a relief. Back on the outside, we made bombs with dynamite and fertiliser before running down the hilside, the fuse hissing in our hands, to bury the explosives in the dirt. The explosions, thumping through the ground and throwing plumes of soil high into the thin air, made us jump, mostly from the fact that a minute earlier they had been in our hands.

It is estimated that 9,000,000 people have died in the mines at Cerro Rico and, with terrible working conditions and no other employment, the figure is only set to increase. The brutal reality is that the miners have no option, but to sacrifice themselves in the mines for the future of their families.


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