Walking back into the light after two hours of being underground, with little air, dust in your lungs and suffocating heat, feels like each breath you take is the freshest you’ve ever taken.
Now, imagine being under such conditions, not for two, but 14 hours a day 5 or 6 times a week, for 30 years or more, if your body can handle it.
Cerro Rico, or “Rich Mountain,” also known colloquially as la come hombres – “man-eater” has been providing silver and swallowing people for 500 hundred years and conditions within it have changed very little since the colony.
Men with rudimentary equipment and close to no safety regulations mine whatever’s left of the nearly drained mountain that once fueled European development and is now the livelihood of 70 percent of the population of Potosi in Bolivia.
Back in colonial times, when Potosi was one of the richest and most populated cities in the western world, an expression caught on in Europe: “to be worth a Potosi,” meaning something was worth a fortune, as Eduardo Galeano describes in his book Open Veins of Latin America.
Under Spanish rule, from 1556 to 1783, tell official records at the National Mint of Bolivia, about 41,000 tons of Silver were extracted from this mine and taken to Europe. Although unofficial recounts claim the amount was far greater. It is said that what was taken from Potosí was more than the entire silver reserves existent in Europe at the time, and that hundreds of thousands of indigenous slaves died in the process. So many, that at some point the Spanish imported thousands of African slaves just to compensate the loss of indigenous work force.
This UNESCO World Heritage site was “regarded as the world’s largest industrial complex” in the 16th century, according to the UN. Nowadays it is a poverty-stricken town where men die before age 40 either by accident in the mine or coughing up blood from Silicosis, after breathing dusty air for years.
Potosi is the perfect example of what has been the fate and history of Latin America. During the colony the indigenous were forced to work to death so Europe could benefit from the natural resources of the New World, and once those resources were depleted and the colony ended, locals were left with the scraps and struggling to make a living, under the management of international companies.
And just as bad as the exploitation of these people, is the way in which they were forced to attempt against their very precious Pachamama (mother earth). For the Incas there was nothing more valuable and sacred than Pachamama, so they would’ve never sacked it in the way they were forced to at Potosi. That is why the mining experience here is not like every other business; it involves rituals and traditions that will prevail until there is not one gram left to be taken out and the mountain collapses on itself – which is the most likely scenario.
Every once in a while the miners sacrifice a llama and spread its blood on the entrance of the mine, in order to “quench the thirst of the Pachamama,” told me Cututu (rabbit in Quechua), my guide. They also make offerings to a statue of the devil that lives inside the mine, called Tio or “uncle” for protection.
Cututu told me El Tio is not really the devil; this was the interpretation the Spanish gave it in their ignorance of Inca culture. But it is fact the mate of the Pachamama and just as she he must be shown respect in exchange of protection.
“You leave your religion outside of the mine. Inside,” said Cututu “you only believe in Pachamama and El Tio, because your fate is in their hands.”
The government tried to shut down the mine a few years back because of the latent dangers, but mass protests deterred it. This mine is all Potosi has. Not only 70 per cent of the population lives off of it, the remaining people depend on the tourism and commerce the mine attracts, therefore it will stay open for as long as it is standing. But the weakened structure that already takes hundreds of lives a year will soon be unable to hold its own.
More than eight million people have died here but there is no accurate official record. Cututu said his is the 4th generation of a long line of miners and that half of it has died in the mine.
One kilo of sellable material goes from 60 to 160 dollars, depending on the quality of the product. But although this mountain was once jam-packed with high quality silver, today out of 70 tons of rock only 50 kilos are sellable.
Miners don’t earn wages, they get paid by kilo of material they take out, hence they work endless hours trying to make as much as they can, working only with a steel rod and a hammer. They maintain their strength by chewing coca leaves, which also suppresses hunger.
“This is our home,” said Cututu. “Some spend more time here than anywhere else.”
Cututu said the government takes one per cent of the profits from the mountain,
“The government gives us nothing, se we give back nothing.”
Concessions to international companies are “ridiculously cheap,” he said. And companies care very little about the safety or wellbeing of the miners; there are no schedules or hours. Miners can go in and out at any time, so sometimes they work 14 hours straight without food or rest.
Despite the harsh life they live, miners are very high-spirited people. They were always smiling and joking around when they were not working. While working they were so focused they barely noticed the outsiders’ presence, but when not they were friendly and happy to receive the presents tourists bring in (it is customary to bring in water, dynamite and coca leaves as presents for the miners). They get even happier with their drink of choice: 96 per cent potable rubbing alcohol. Why they drink this, I don’t know. But I guess there is a lot about a miner’s life I will never be able to comprehend; it is a whole different world down there.
This is the steel rod the miners use: