The deep thud of the blast ripples along the stone walls of the mineshaft.
The walls are laced with moisture, the liquid appearing out of nowhere and everywhere. The explosion brings with it a light breeze and the earth shakes around me. It is hot, damp and hard to breathe 30 meters below the earth’s surface. The mask that I wear, made of a material similar to cardboard, is now more black than white.
Only 45 minutes earlier our tour group had witnessed the placement of 10 sticks of dynamite. To maximize the explosion’s effectiveness, each stick was muzzle-loaded into its own two foot hole using a makeshift metal rammer. The men stuffing the holes are dinosaurs in the mine, close to 40 years old. The BBC reports that the average lifespan of the miners is 35.
Nine more explosions sound off in rapid fire, like an underground 21 gun-salute. Then silence.
The blast unearths the bounty of tin, zinc, magnesium and silver encased within the walls. The minerals are collected by the lowest laborers on the totem pole and hauled up to the surface in iron carts. When compared to the young faces pushing them, the carts seem positively ancient.
To history buffs and avid South American travellers, the Potosi mine or Cerro Rico “Rich Mountain” needs no introduction. Up until recently, I was neither, so taking a tour of the mine was an eye-opening experience. Potosi mine has been in operation since 1546, originally under the auspices of the Spanish crown. The silver rush exploded here and buoyed the rise of the Spanish state. Potosi city held the largest industrial complex in the world during the 16th century and was at one point more populous than Paris. In its hey day, the fame of the city was far reaching; it was even referenced in Don Quixote as a land of “extraordinary richness”.
Gifts for the miners
Before descending into the mine, our tour group stopped at a local convenience store. Little more than a hole in the wall, the store was lined with mining products from floor to ceiling. There, tourists buy gifts for the miners including coca leaves, dynamite, orange soda, pure alcohol and cigarettes. The miners use the alcohol and coca leaves daily, which allows them some respite from the difficult working conditions inside the mine. The alcohol is said to clean the stomach, and the tar from cigarettes is supposed to encase the longs and protect them from the deadly dust in the air.
Threat of Collapse
The mine is a labyrinth of passageways etched out over 500 years of mineral extraction. The term swiss cheese is tossed around liberally to describe the state of affairs; the passageways weave up and down, and around themselves, weakening the structural integrity of the mountain.
Mining expert Nestor Rene Espinoza says that “Total collapse is possible.” In 2012, the mountain received injections of concrete into some of the empty mine shafts to stabilize the structure. Unfortunately, in 2013, the signature cone of the mountain partially collapsed and work had to be restarted.
Labor and cooperatives
Depending on who you ask, the death toll during the Mine’s almost 500 years of operation is anywhere between a couple hundred thousand and 8 million. In any case, the number of fatalities is enough that the mountain now carries the ominous moniker of “The Mountain that Eats Men.”
Originally, African and indigenous slaves were used as labor. Bolivia declared independence in 1825 and the mine reverted to domestic control.
Since the 1980’s, cooperatives run the mine. Although, it sounds good in name, the cooperatives pay the workers the equivalent of 14 dollars a day and most of the time do not share the mine’s profits. In any case, the pay is better than most alternatives, almost twice the minimum wage.
The miners work 8 to 12 hour days, 6 days a week. Many don’t take lunch, so the miners chew the coca leaves to gain much needed energy. The laborers push wheel barrels weighing 120 kilos back and forth through the mine, walking up to 20 kilometres a day in the process.
The Guardian, in a recent article, describes the working conditions in the mines as (having) “no lighting, no safety regulations or inspectors, no modern rail cars and no pumped-in oxygen, leaving miners to inhale a fine deadly dust.” That’s what I observed.
Guides and Tour companies
Many tour companies employ former miners. Our guide was a woman who had worked two years inside the mine. She told us that sometimes when a husband dies in the mine, the wife takes over for him.
The tour itself cost 11 dollars and took approximately four hours to complete. During the tour, we descended four levels into the mine. We scurried down holes equipped with ladders not large enough to fit a man and a backpack, sloshed through knee-deep water, visited shrines to a mountain deity, watched miners place sticks of dynamite and even manned a high-powered drill that was so heavy two people were needed to support its weight.
We also stopped often to talk with the miners. At one point we spoke with four young workers who were taking a ten minute break. The working conditions that I cited in the Labor and Cooperative’s section was mostly obtained from these young guys (through our guide’s translation). They passed around alcohol by the cap-full and chain smoked cigarettes. The festival of Pachamama, or mother earth, was that weekend, and their spirits seemed to be high.
El Tio receives gifts
Most of the mine shafts have an idol of “El Tio” (the Uncle) somewhere hidden within its passageways. Miners give el Tio gifts of cigarettes, pure alcohol and even a coca leave necklace. They give the gifts to appease him. They believe El Tio can protect them from accidents and collapse.
Future is uncertain
There are certainly reasons for a gloomy prognosis. It is estimated that on average four miners die every month. Add on the crumbling integrity of the mountain and there is trouble not only for the miners but the mine itself.
Although things look bleak, one should remember that the Bolivian currency displays the signature cone of Cerro Rico. A reminder that the fate of this historic mountain is not something taken lightly by the country. Tourism already provides a secondary source of income to the city and perhaps provides some hope for the future. Those with rudimentary English can gain jobs as guides. Furthermore, the gifts brought to the miners, although paltry, are greatly appreciated by those who receive them. With 15,000 miners working in the mine and thousands more depending on them, tourism has a large space to fill.
If you would like to support the miners, Tammy at Tammy and Chris on the move (a Humanitarian and Travel blog), recommends taking a tour with a company that employs miners such as Koala Tours or contributing to Amigos de Potosi, an NGO who fights Child Labor in the Mine.
What do you think of the post? Did I get anything wrong? Do you have another perspective on the future of the mine? Rip into me or praise me in the comments section. I enjoy one more than the other, but both are welcome.