Entering Potosi I see a dead dog and a hollowed out car crushed under some girders. A bad omen.
The city, claimed to be the world’s highest at 4100m+, is intrinsically linked to the mountain it flanks. Cerro Rico. Now, there are many mountains which could lay claim to being the finest on our bumpy globe, but Cerro Rico mounts a sterling claim to being the absolute worst. More than one in three die on Annapurna, Mont Blanc has claimed thousands of lives, but an estimated eight million people have died in Cerro Rico, and it has caused untold suffering to countless more.
Why? Silver, it could only be the product of greed, something shiny and useless. The Spanish started excavating in 1545 using indigenous (and later African) slave labour. The quantities of the metal were such that it was the major source of wealth for the empire and the shipments of Potosi silver were utterly essential to its success. The city that sprung up to support the industry became one of the biggest and wealthiest in the world. I haven’t had to read much into it to get an impression of how appalling (wordpress tried to correct that to ‘appealing’, no wordpress. No) the conditions were for the slaves. The principle here seems to have been throw them down the mine, if they last a couple years, result. Accidents and silicosis poisoning were the main causes of death, and still are. The lonely planet guide gives an impression:
In order to increase productivity, in 1572 the Viceroy of Toledo instituted the Ley de la Mita, which required all indigenous and African slaves over the age of 18 to work shifts of 12 hours. They would remain underground without seeing daylight for four months at a time, eating, sleeping and working in the mines…naturally these miners… didn’t last long.
And this is just the tip of a horrendous iceberg. At any rate during the 19th century the silver largely dried up, the town fell into decline but now limps on thanks to modest tin, zinc and lead deposits found in the mountain. And the odd bit of silver.
After much debate and introspection we decide to have a look in for ourselves.
Firstly, the city itself has some nice old buildings in the centre courtesy of its historic wealth but largely it is a very poor and quite sad place.
Mining tours are the main reason travellers stop here. I’d ummed and ahhed about whether it was ethical or not but on reading up on it figured it could be done sensitively and be beneficial. To this end we went with Greengo Tours run by Julio, a larger than life character to be sure. We are joined on this mission by Shay, a young Israeli guy fresh off his military service which meant that he was Julio’s chosen one on the basis that he could take orders and handle the hardcore stuff we’d be dealing with (He made us a nice veggie noodles, the first self cooked meal I’d had in Bolivia thanks to an abundance of cheap restaurants and a lack of kitchens in hostels). After working in the mines for a few years as a young man Julio saw an interest from friends and travellers in seeing the famously abysmal working conditions there and started taking tours. He’s been doing it for thirty years now and has seen dozens of others follow his, taking tourists into the mine. He’s not impressed, to quote him “they should kiss my ****ing hands”. He rants about the other providers regularly, about how they do a circus show that’s an insult to the workers.
Captions aren’t working right now on my phone. At any rate these mine pics are courtesy of Shay.
First off we visit the miner’s market where we stock up on gifts of juice, cigarettes and dynamite for the miners. Next we’re off to the cursed mountain itself. Today the mines are run by a number of cooperatives, so the miners are proudly self-employed. They work in small teams (up to about six people) who each have a section of their cooperative’s area. There is a loose and basic system of pension, sickness, injury and death cover but it doesn’t really meet the need. Julio has a relationship with one cooperative and the bawdy banter he has with them is identical to what you’d find on a British building site. The miners, given their tough lot, are friendly and largely quite chipper. There is a lot of pride here, pride in good hard work and of course a hyper-masculine culture. That being said the exhaustion and strain is palpable on those coming off shift; it is brutal work in conditions that haven’t much changed since the 16th century. Tools are basic and safety standards low. Nonetheless we are given insight into the many workings of the mine and it is an impressive undertaking in such oppressive conditions.
It’s worth having a little explanation about coca leaves here, and yes that is coca of cocaine fame. Chewing coca leaves is something of a national occupation; it’s sold at many street stores and is ruminated in the side of ones cheek, you absorb the properties through the gums. Furthermore it’s a Bolivian cultural institution: Evo Morales, the first indigenous president, expelled the DEA from the country as they destroy the plants for its use in the drug trade and then prioritised coca farming. Julio thinks this was at the expense of other crops and has been a problem. He has opinions on everything. So everyone in the mine has a puffed, hamster cheek full of the stuff and its popularity here and elsewhere is an indication of the hardiness of this country. It is a mild painkiller, suppressing both tiredness and hunger. That is why the harder the work, or the less food there is the more you see coca. For our purposes it helps with altitude sickness so we’ve used it a few times to this end, it doesn’t taste great and makes your cheek numb but it’s not the worst habit. It’s also good in tea. Here the younger guys mix it with Ayahuasca (an hallucinogenic cactus) to give it a stronger, more cocaine like effect. Julio said they gave it to him once and then mimed stroking his numb face for a while before saying it wasn’t for him.
After chatting to the miners near the entrance we venture inside. It’s cold, wet and tight but we largely stick to the main tunnels and steer fairly clear of the currently operational areas, so as not to disturb, thus avoiding the worst parts. The pace Julio sets, standard miner pace, is high and tough to keep up with when you’re a foot higher than the average miner and having to bend double while jogging. Also we are very high and air is lacking down here. He explains many aspects of the work and the lifestyle such as the cocky youngsters coming in and the old guys letting them learn the hard way, or miners going home after fruitless days and having domestic dramas (abuse isn’t uncommon). That no miner wants their child to do the same work so they try to get them educated, but then the kid gets a girl pregnant, needs to provide and has to mine anyway (Teenage pregnancy is shockingly high here). He does this all with strange, extended little dramas where he’ll play both characters, I’ll give him this, he commits to his acting. He is a hard man, rude, abrupt and egotistical but honest and sincerely concerned about the miners; he’s set up a foundation to help the miners’ kids with their education. He’s also quite racist; the French, Israelis, Argentinians and Aymara all incurring his scorn. But he had a Scottish drinking buddy so we’re cool. Complex character.
Each of the mines contains a statue of Tio, the devil, who holds dominion underground. The miners feed him with two swigs of the 98% alcohol they drink, then two for themselves. If he’s full of booze he’ll be less hungry, a hungry Tio collapses tunnels to eat miners. Deadly mine collapses aren’t uncommon. This is firmly in our minds as we hear the distant thuds of dynamite explosions. Predictably mine deaths are too commonplace to be a story, but if a gringo on a mine tour died down there, well that would be huge.
After a couple hours down it we’ve had our fill and make our way back. It’s been a hugely insightful experience and as expected, quite disheartening. I ask Julio if there’s any other future; the miners are scraping the bottom of the barrel here as it is and that won’t last forever. He says no, the mine is the city, no matter how desperate it becomes it’s the only past, present and future it has. Good luck Potosi, you need it….