Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Potosí and the Devil's Mountain

Potosí must be the oldest city I've set foot in. It's not only the knowledge that it was founded in 1545. It feels old. Only 100,000 people live there, but they are crammed into streets and buildings that obviously predate any thought of buses and cars attempting to circulate the city.

Terra Cotta view from the top of the Cathedral.
From potosi

Echoes of a richer age fill the town. Many fine colonial buildings and houses still nostalgically look out on the source of its former riches: Cerro Rico. When the mines of Cerro Rico were full of silver, it was the richest, most populous city in the Americas, even more so than Paris or New York.

Cerro Rico looming over town.

It's former wealth is misleading. Upon nearing the tan, slumping mass of Cerro Rico you finally see the thousands of mine shafts that pockmark its surface. Only amidst the terraces and pits deforming the mountain is there indication of the costs of its exploitation. The silver that used to fill Cerro Rico didn't mine itself. Eight million American Indians died slaving in the mines. Since then, Cerro Rico has been as much as a curse as a blessing to Potosí. The refinery supernate poisons the rivers. The silver has been largely exhausted, but zinc, lead and tin still cause the men of Potosí to crawl into its maw.

Ingenio or refinery. The valuable minerals float to the top of the slurry. The waste is dumped into the river.

And the mountain continues to devour them. The average lifespan of a miner is 30-40 years of labor. Working without respiratory protection, silicosis is universal. The degree depends on the duration and type of silica exposure. A drill operator who is constantly exposed to fine dust, often dies after only ten years. Besides the slow death of silicosis, cave-ins, carbon monoxide poisoning and trolly accidents kill 40 miners a year out of the current 5,000 working.

It was with trepidation, then, that we decided to take a “tour” of the mines. After donning coveralls, hard hat, and lantern and buying gifts to share with the miners, we headed to Cerro Rico. We first walked, then crouched, and finally crawled into the Candelaría mine, which has been in operation since Colonial times. Now, rather than Indian slaves, a cooperative of miners exploits what's left of the ore. They split the earnings according to hierarchy. The socio (head) making 5000 Bolivianos (US 700) per month, segunda mano (second hand) miners making about 1000-2000 Bolivianos depending on the month, and the gofers making about 20 Bolivianos (less than 3 US dollars) a day. A bottle of coke is 3 Bolivianos.

In the maw.

Our guides repeatedly told of improving conditions, some of which seemed accurate. A law was passed that banned children-miners, working hours have decreased, and the cooperatives provide health care. While on the one hand, we didn't encounter any children, most miners we met had worked since age 13 or 14. Yes, the miners can choose their hours, but if the ore is impure the groups must choose between rest or remuneration. Salary means survival. And regardless of health care, silicosis is untreatable.

So, it is still a hellish place. The miners know this. So they worship Mary on the surface, but worship Tío (Uncle Satan) underground. He rules their fortunes in the mines. He permits them to extract the ore that they find, supports or undermines the walls of the shafts, circulates fresh air or noxious gas. At the end of the week, the miners offer Tío some of their drink-of-choice. The belief is that the purer the drink, the purer the extracted ore, so they drink 190 proof grain alcohol. And, from first hand experience, it stings the nostrils a bit.


After descending three levels into the mine, we were more than ready to return to the world of the living. Back on the surface the guides were kind enough to demonstrate how dynamite is used in the mines.

Unsure of what to do with lit dynamite

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