In 1544 Diego Huallpa, a local Inca, was walking across a mountain in the central highlands of Bolivia searching for an escaped llama. In the evening he built a fire which, so the legend goes, became so hot that the earth beneath it started to melt and a shiny liquid oozed from the ground. A year later the Spanish Conquistadors learned of this enormous wealth, founded the city of Potosi, named the mountain Cerro Rico, “rich hill” and began large-scale excavations. For centuries it bank-rolled the Spanish empire with vast quantities of silver and Potosi, which at 4070m is one of the highest cities in the world, became one of the wealthiest. This is still evident by it’s grand Baroque churches, ornate balconies and splendid colonial architecture.
Of course not everyone benefitted from this wealth. Potosi has a gruesome past and for many of the current inhabitants a gruelling present.
Thousands of indigenous people were forced in to slavery to work these dangerous mines, working, eating and sleeping underground for up to four months at a time. There were so many deaths due to accidents and lung diseases caused by asbestos and silica dust circulating throughout the narrow tunnels that the Spanish imported African slaves to boost the dwindling workforce. Unused to the freezing temperatures, encountering diseases they had no resistance to and succumbing to altitude sickness they died quickly and in horrifying numbers.
Heavy losses were also incurred among those who worked in the ingenios (smelting mills), as the silver-smelting process involved contact with deadly mercury. It is thought that in nearly three centuries of colonial rule (1545 to 1825) as many as eight million Africans and indigenous Bolivians died.
Although most of the silver has been excavated the mine still contains tin, lead, zinc and copper and is now run by miner-owned cooperatives. Shamefully, conditions have not improved much since colonial times, but the dream of hitting that life changing silver vein and the lack of other job opportunities in the area sees men still risking their lives in this hostile environment.
Although there were a lot of scare stories about touring the mine due to the noxious chemicals, poor air quality, high altitude, unsafe explosions and claustrophobic conditions we were curious enough to take our chances. We chose a company that was run by ex-miners, who wanted their clients to be safe and well informed and they give a proportion of the fee to their colleagues for the inconvenience of us traipsing through their work areas.
Most miners earn a pittance – the average wage is about £250 per month – and have to buy all their own equipment and tools, so we began the tour at the miners market where we could buy presents such as dynamite, soft drinks and coca leaves – the raw source of cocaine. Anyone can buy sticks of dynamite for about £2.50, which to us seemed extraordinary and a rather fun novelty, but to the people of Potosi it’s just another day, just another purchase.
The coca leaves too are simply part of the daily routine. At the start of their 12 hour day they methodically fill their cheeks with one dried coca leaf after another until they have a ball of at least 50. Along the way they add small quantities of a soft black putty made from quinoa ashes mixed with aniseed and cane sugar. This alkaline substance helps extract the juice from the dry, brittle leaves.
The psychoactive alkaloid content of coca leaves is low, just 0.25-0.77% so it doesn’t produce the “high” of cocaine, but it does suppress hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue, provides enough stimulus to help the miners work for such long stretches and combats the symptoms of altitude sickness.
After secreting a few leaves in our own cheeks, donning overalls, boots and a helmet we turned on our headlamps and walked in to the bloody mouth of the mountain. It truly is bloody. As a regular ritual and offering to the mountain gods, llamas are sacrificed and their blood is splattered above the tunnel entrances.
Despite the warnings of danger and the waiver we had signed clearing the tour operator of responsibility should we die in the mine, I felt remarkably calm! Our small group walked in single file, our guide Wilson who was a working miner, in front and an assistant bringing up the rear. The headlamps kept the tunnels well illuminated but they were so low we had to walk bent double for much of the time. Trying to keep an eye both on the uneven ground where I was putting my feet and on the rough, protruding rocks above me my body felt twisted and strained.
We processed slowly through these tunnels marvelling at the fact that they were cut through using only basic picks, axes and shovels. There is no fancy equipment and only the very few well-off miners can afford pneumatic drills which make the work a little easier. Because of this they don’t make the tunnels bigger than is needed so at times we had to crawl along tiny passageways and descend through tight shafts bracing ourselves against the dusty, ragged rocks. There were no helpful steps, ladders or handrails, no signs to locate oneself, just one primitive shaft or tunnel after another leading deeper and deeper in to an inhospitable and unfamiliar world. It was very disorientating and the calmness I felt earlier was beginning to evaporate.
It was physically demanding too – cramped, hot, airless and dusty. Even though is was harder to breathe whilst wearing the surgical mask I’d been issued I kept it clamped to my face hoping it would give some protection against the unseen noxious gases, the asbestos deposits and silica particles. The miners we came across, faces glistening from sweat and grey with dust don’t wear masks as the laboured breathing makes them tired and less effective. Unsurprisingly most of these men don’t get to see their 50th birthday, dying early deaths from lung diseases or accidents.
The offcial figure is 30 accidents each year, but Wilson believes it’s many more than this. There are no safety measures, no restrictions on the use of dynamite or when and where explosions take place. At one point as we sat listening to Wilson describe life in the mine, where he began work at 8 years old, we heard the dull roar of a distant explosion. I expected vibrations and mud and rocks to rain down on us – none of that happened, but it was eerie and distracting and brought memories of the Chilean miners buried for weeks in their hole of hell. Even the carts which transport the rock from where it is extracted to the outside are a danger. They have no brakes, run on rickety old tracks and with the tunnels being so narrow there is very little room to get out of their path. Several times in the tour we had to mould ourselves to the side of the tunnel as a cart came hurtling by. You need to kept your wits about you.
One of the miners’ main form of protection is “El Tio”, a devilish god whose physical representation is found in numerous places throughout this ant hill of a mine. On the first Friday of the month the miners gather to ask for protection and good fortune and the last Friday they return to give thanks to El Tio. They offer cigarettes, coca leaves and drops of the favoured 96% sugar cane alcohol before taking a swig themselves. A litre of this fire water is cheaper then a pint of beer and many of the men have come to rely too heavily on its numbing affects which adds to the number of deaths both from illness and accident.
If there’s one name, one place that symbolises exploitation and suffering in Bolivia it is the Potosi mine. Even being inside for a mere 2 hours I was more than ready to leave and it was a blessed relief to step back out in to the daylight and fresh air. Many of the men we had chatted to would be there for a further 10 hours toiling in the belly of this unforgiving mountain. It was a humbling and insightful experience helping me to understand what the miners meant when they said, “We eat the mountain and the mountain eats us”.
Thanks to Lonely Planet iBook Bolivia for some of the historical facts.