Having once gone down the deep claustrophobic shaft of a British mine many years ago, we had no desire to enter the mines of Cerro Rico (rich mountain) overlooking #Potosi, the world famous mountain & onetime origin of the world’s largest silver deposits – now mostly extracted. For starters, in the place where upto 8 million indigenous worker-slaves & black African slaves are believed to have died/been killed by their Spanish masters, this seemed like the worst kind of tourism. But after a few days in Potosi you realise how much the mines define the city, so to better understand this complex relationship & history we signed up for a tour.
Not just any tour – we found an agency run by ex-miners (mostly retired through injury), whose guides were ex-miners, who luckily spoke decent English, and who donated money back to the working miners (see Big Deal Tours at Calle Bustillos #1092, corner with Calle Ayucucho). Providing safety equipment, a visit to a refining company (the process of extracting minerals from the mined rocks), views of cerro Rico, and a tour of a working mine. So we turned up in trepidation at 8.30am on 24 March in central Potosi, to join a tour with 3 other Europeans and 2 Spanish speakers.
After introductions & banter, we set off to be kitted out in the yard of a property in a poor working class district near the mountain. Along with the 2 guides, a third, female, guide joined us as our group had 2 women in it. First we visited the ‘miners market’ in Potosi, where dynamite and detonators are openly on sale! We were encouraged to purchase ‘gifts’ for the miners – individual dynamite sticks + detonator, water & juice, coca leaves, and 96% alcohol (we brought some coca leaves & alcohol). Next we visited a refining plant near the mountain, where mined rocks purchased from miners were broken down & washed to extract any minerals – mostly silver and zinc. A filthy noisy business this was!
Then it was onto Cerro Rico, a mountain mined for nearly 500 years, riddled with old mine shafts allegedly to the point of collapse (!!!), it’s surface stripped bare. In the 16th & 17th centuries this mountain made Potosi into possibly the world’s richest city, and one of the largest with a population to rival Paris & London of some 170,000 people. All the wealth though was taken abroad by it’s European owners or as payment to the Spanish empire, so when the silver boom here ended the city nearly died on its knees, until the discovery of tin and a second boom revived it again until the 1950’s.
Our guides clearly had an agreement with workers in the mine we entered and were on first name terms. Whilst it had a single entrance just over 1m high, inside were various tunnels of varying sizes that were being developed by small teams of miners (3-5 men), and in some case lone workers – they kept what they extracted, it wasn’t shared amongst everybody in the mine. Inside was incredibly dusty, and the height of the tunnels varied from 3-4m to as low as 60cm in places, and never more than 2m wide (except for a few ‘caves’). It was extremely claustrophobic, and one of us only lasted 10meters in before exiting rapidly – which was wise as it wasn’t long before we were on our hands and knees! Taking fotos in these conditions was very tricky….
- The miners worked almost exclusively by hand with picks & shovels at the rockface, hauling bags of rubble/rocks into small carts that were pushed by hand out of the mine. Tunnel roofs were rudimentarily reinforced by wooden beams every few metres. Tunnels were created by using multiple single dynamite blasts (usually no more than 8-10 at a time), in a couple of places the holes for the dynamite were drilled but usually these holes were made by hammer & large metal chisel.This seemed like the way UK mining may have worked upto 100 years ago, but our guide told us they preferred it this way, describing it as ‘artesanal’. The alternative would mean using heavy equipment, which they couldn’t afford, so it would be provided by large mining companies – who’d be looking for a quick profit before closing down. The miners believed that by mining slowly, and making enough money to live, they could prolong the life of the mine for generations to come, providing those in the future with an income (we were told another mountain nearby had not yet been mined at all, in the hope this too would provide future work). Presently there’s about 180 mines on Cerro Rico, worked by some 5000 miners. This number fluctuates, largely it seems on the value or ‘market price’ for the silver, zinc & other minerals they extract – so in 1998 there were 20,000 miners, in 2002 only 1,500, and so on. In fallow periods miners may go to Argentina or elsewhere looking for work (but not Chile if they can avoid it!).
These working conditions do of course have a serious cost in terms of health and longevity. Our guide had retired from mining at age 20 after 10 years work. He said his father mined for 40 years before dying at 55, which was considered good, but his step-grandfather had lasted to his late 60’s! However he also had cousins and friends who had all died in their 30’s and 40’s, from accidents/injuries or from horrible breathing conditions such as silicosis – and the health care available is not much good either, diminishing their chances if taken ill. Despite this the miners hold onto their belief that their god ‘El Tio’ will look after them and indicate where their mine should or should not go. El Tio is their god underground whose influence ends at the exit from the mine, and the shrine to El Tio we saw in this mine was reputed to be over 20 years old – where regular offerings are made (every mine apparently has a shrine to him). Miners also have faith in Pachamama (mother earth), whose influence extends both inside the mine & outside, and a small shrine to her near the exit also receives regular offerings of coca leaves, alcohol, sweets etc.
A very few of these modern-day miners strike it rich, but most don’t & income varies weekly based on what they dig out. They do however work for themselves, not a foreign corporation, and despite the conditions & hard times they exhibit a great deal of pride in their work and in sustaining their city.
The tour of the mine lasted just under 2 scary hours, and we emerged dusty & rather breathless, spitting out the ball of coca leaves we’d kept in our cheeks to sustain us. Climbing around inside the mine at 4500m in altitude, with the sound of distant dynamite blasts (don’t worry its a good 100m away said our guide!), is not an experience we’ll ever repeat, but it was an eye-opening if often panic-inducing couple of hours.
Books – ‘Open Veins of Latin America‘ and ‘Bolivia between a rock and a hard place‘.
The mountain that eats men alive (and women workers) – NI
Potosi Mines (Latin American History – ORE)
Bolivia’s Cerro Rico (NPR media)