– November 2013 BOLIVIA –
POTOSI, THE HIGHEST CITY IN THE WORLD, was once the largest and richest. Not much of that is left today. From the discovery of the biggest silver strike in history in 1545 (100m long, 4m wide, 100m deep), it grew and grew until by 1611 it counted 160,000 inhabitants. Potosí had gotten as big as London or Amsterdam!
In 1549 a single shipment of 7,771 bars of silver left the city. Each bar was 99% silver and weighed about 25kilo. The city bathed in richness and at one time the city streets were paved with silver bars.
Obviously, labor was mostly done by the brutally enslaved indigenous and imported Africans. Initially work was limited to two months a year per person (without coming out that is), but demand and greed soon turned this into four, six, ten or simply until you dropped dead on the spot.
Alltogether 150,000 tons (150,000,000 kilo) or more of solid silver came out of Potosí between the 16th and 18th centuries and accounted for over 80% of the world’s total output. By 1824 Bolivia gained independence of Spain and continued to produce large amounts of silver.
TODAY the last of Cerro Rico’s minerals are being excavated, though not much silver can be found anymore. Tin and zinc make up the majority now. When world prices for these metals surged, up to 10,000 people worked in the mines daily. After nearly five hundred years(!) of active mining not much is left of the mountain’s original shape. It is like a Swiss cheese and according to archaeologists it has shrunk as much as 300 meters over the centuries. Potosí hosts 250,000 inhabitants, not that much more than 350 years ago.
Engineers from the western world have investigated the safety situation of Cerro Rico and in 2002 deemed it so unstable that they thought the whole mountain would collapse within two years. The warnings were ignored (duh, Bolivia) and now, ten years later, two thousand dynamite sticks are still detonated every day in the hunt for valuable minerals.
Ideas have emerged to pump concrete into any tunnels not in use to increase stability, but our guide laughed “This mountain is never going to collapse! It is the strongest mountain and made of volcanic rock. It is very strong.”
Still, with all slave-driven exploitation of the past and present, it is estimated that three to eight million people have lost their lives in the mines. No wonder it’s known among locals as The Mountain That Eats Men.
THE MINE’S ENTRANCE breathes clouds of sulfate. After five minutes we don’t notice anymore.
The tunnel was tall enough to walk upright for the first few hundred meters. After that we had to crouch, avoiding the wooden beams that seem randomly jammed into the rock to provide stability. After studying them more carefully, we noticed many had been crushed by the mountain’s movement until they snapped or bent under the immense pressure.
No food is taken into the mines, no water and no women. Life underground consists of men, alcohol, dynamite, cigarettes and coca leaf. For hydration you may mix juice with 96% alcohol and call it Bolivian Whiskey.
Breathing through a bandana is recommended, but my glasses fog up and the air is so thin that it makes breathing nearly impossible. We are at 4,200 m and inside an unventilated maze full of men and explosions.
Our group of seven soon left the main tunnel and started crawling up and down ladders deeper into the mountain. Where I thought mining was done in a somewhat structural way, this is not the case at Potosí. Abandoned tunnels and passageways went all over the place. Left and right we passed gaping holes and corridors going in every seemingly random direction. We got to level 2 out of 17 before taking our first break.
THE FIRST WORKING GROUP we encountered consisted of three men; the boss and two workers. Their daily pay varies between 100 and 150 Bolivianos per day ($12-30). From that must be deducted rent for using the drills, cost of equipment, dynamite, drink etc…
The worker I sat next to had a loud cough. He’s been working in the mines from his 18th and is 36. Sometimes the men start coughing blood, a sign they have caught silicosis and don’t have much longer to live. The youngest miners start at 14 years of age, but can sometimes be as young as 10. If no opportunity comes their way to work outside the mines, their life expectancy does not exceed 40.
To sanitize their hands before touching coca leaf (which they chew all day long), they pee on their hands. We witnessed this as we offered them a gift of a half pound of coca. I figured they could use their alcohol for that, but it’s rather saved for better use.
As we walked up, they were just placing dynamite. Twenty sticks in two spots, ready to be set off. What fortune! As the wicks were lit we rushed out of the area as soon as possible. With lots of yelling we hurried down the narrow tunnels, descended wood ladders and ran across slippery planks over deep crevasses.
At the dead end of a tunnel we stopped and sat down to count the explosions. We counted all twenty–which is good. if one was missing they would have to wait 24 hours before going back to check. With all of them detonating properly, one hour’s waiting was enough.
We had a break, talk, smoke and drink. Dust from the blast slowly moved in, exposing the beams of our head lamps more clearly. Our guide asked me to present some of the gifts that I’d brought from the miner’s market. As soon as the big bottle of alcohol came out, it was snatched out of my hand. I then gave up the juice, gloves (one pair each) and dust masks. Don Quicha peeked into my bag and saw I was holding back a bag of fresh coca leaves and claimed it “Give us the coca too!”
Being the only female in the group–women generally not allowed inside the mountain–I received much attention. “Tiboron wants your cell number!” translated our guide from Quechua to English.
“Sorry, I don’t have a cell phone. Got a husband though..” and I gestured to David.
“No, no, inside the mines different rules. You are single here right now. He your ex-husband now. How many are we here? Ten machos for you.”
“I can take you all, but I kick and I bite.” was my response.
Chatter continued about balls, ‘salchipapas‘ (hot dogs) and boobs. I kept strong and boisterous but felt a little unnerved.
THE PEOPLE of Potosí are religious. When daylight can be seen and fresh oxygen smelled, they worship the Catholic God. But once descended into the earth, God’s power does not reach. ‘Pachamama‘ (Mother Earth) and ‘El Tio’ (The Devil) rule underground. El Tio wants what you might think he would and workers offer him coca leafs, alcohol, cigarettes and llama blood. He looks dog-like and cartoonish and there are hundreds of them along the tunnels. He might be painted red and always has a huge penis sticking out from his lap. At times extreme things are brought to El Tio though most men don’t agree with that. Our guide told us of a miner offering a human fetus to one Tio we visited.
Twice a year a sacrificing feast is given for El Tio where a Llama is slaughtered and its blood splattered across the Tio statues. When miners give their daily offerings, they ask Tio for good fortune in finding richness and protection while they work. They may also touch the phallus and request good potency and fertility.
I FELT CLAUSTROPHOBIC only once. We crawled up a narrow shaft, I had boots in my face and the next person right behind me. You need to find a place to put your hands and feet, crawl across loose dirt with asbestos tickling your ear and arsenic pulverizing under your knees.
Two by two we were invited into a seemingly forgotten corner of the mines. Here, one man was working, using a chisel and doing everything by hand. He works alone, continuing in the footsteps of his father. Once he has driven in the chisel far enough into rock (60cm), he inserts a stick of dynamite and blows a hole. One hole takes about two hours to make, but if he finds anything he can keep all the profit.
All mines are cooperatives. Any man can go in and start excavating without a permit. There is some ‘code‘ everyone adheres to, but there is also thievery, secrecy and violence. As men bring out their ore, others will scrutinize what’s in their carts or baskets. When a man finds a vane of silver he ought to be very secretive about it. If he is found out others may come and claim his territory by force.
For this reason ‘Goma‘ prepared a dynamite bomb and set it off close-by. It is a warning system, scaring miners not to get too close.
The acoustics were impressive. A loud thud came with pulsating air being thrust through the tunnel system.
We offered Goma gifts. A mix of juice and alcohol was passed around in a cup made from an old alcohol container. At your turn you spill a few drops for Pachamama. But not too much “..or else she get drunk.”
After a few rounds I started pouring out a little more so as not to get tipsy myself. Better Pachamama than I–we still had to find our way out!
Sitting around like that, watching him make these bombs, was a bit much for me. The miners have hard lives and tend to play with fate by being boisterous around serious explosives. Seeing how it was done is interesting, but you realize little needs to go wrong for a large accident to happen… Detonators with nitroglycerin and bags full of gunpowder are handled as if they were toys and all is put together with crude tools or by hand.
FLOWERS OF ARSENIC paint the tunnel walls white and yellow. Further on dark red sediment and green sulfate crystals formed from dynamite dust.
Our guide Choco picks up a piece of arsenic the size of his fingertip and says: “If I lick my finger my friend, I will live forever. I become immortal in heaven.” Sometimes the men take some to feed it to the dogs when they become annoying. I don’t want to think of other uses it has been put to.
We did not go in very deep, perhaps half a kilometer. There are no maps of the mountain but it is estimated that 90km of tunnels are currently navigable. Miners have to learn their way around by memory. If one does not come out after 24 hours, a search is made. If one does not reappear after three days, he has died.
We had to hug the walls a few times on the way out to let a cart go by. They are pushed on old, mostly wooden rails down the main shaft. Once outside they are emptied into concrete funnels, caught by trucks and driven to the processing plant.
SEEING THE LIGHT at the end of the tunnel after 2,5 hours, it appeared brighter than ever. It’s hard to determine whether my headache comes from the arsenic, drinking 96% pure alcohol or the many times I hit my head. For eleven dollars we felt that we had been very fortunate with our tour. Hopefully by paying for this experience, we were able to offer them some ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. Many of the men working in the mountain desire an education to have a chance at a better job, and a house in town for their families.
We came out shaken by the experience, impressed and quieted by the harsh conditions we witnessed. I don’t regret going even though I had considered avoiding the confrontation. From now on buying a pair of silver earrings will mean a little more.
PRESUMABLY, ONE DAY the mountain will run out of minerals. What will happen after that? Will Potosí turn into a ghost town? The historical center has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 so tourism will keep flowing. A day later my memory of the visit seems surreal and it’s hard to believe that we were actually down there to see what we did.
Potosi and Cerro Rico. What does it’s future hold?