Many do not know where Bolivia is. Even less know about Potosí in the south of the country. This is a story about its mines and the miners buried deep inside them.
It is an UNESCO World Heritage Cultural site and the world’s highest city (4800 m).
It was once (in the 16th century) one of the word’s richest cities thanks to its silver mines of Cerro Rico (Spanish for Rich Hill. Also called Sumaj Orcko in Quechua). The city owes its torrid history to it as well.
Nowadays, miners make subsistence living sometimes spending up to 30 continuous hours underground working in poor and dangerous conditions and surviving on Coca leaves and little food.
My tour guide explained there can be up to 8000 miners underground at a time most earning about 500 Bolivianos a month (USD62 in 2005). Many enter the mines at the age of 11 years old (despite the legal age limit of 18 years old) and don’t leave till they are 45-50 years old. Many don’t make it to 60 due to ill health. It’s not unusual to find a generation of family working in the mines.
We left the warmth and the light of the sun behind us as we entered the mines cautiously. The world around us closed in in dimness just like the grim hope you could see in the drained and brown stained eyes of the miners I was about to stare into.
Puddles of water and 2 rails for trolleys running into the depth of the mines on the ground. A sudden drop in temperature. Icicles dangling down from the stone brick ceiling constructed some 460 years ago.
Our helmet lamps being the only source of light guiding our way, we had to be careful not to damage them when we banged our heads on the ceiling in tight parts of the mines.
We trudged in further. Not cold any more but some would find it very claustrophobic. It would be nigh impossible to get out alone if you were to panic or get lost in this maze of tunnels and dungeons. There were no signs, lighting or safety procedures.
There didn’t seem to be any system to the structure of the mines. Miners followed the mineral veins wherever they lead them to. I wondered and worried about the mines collapsing with dymamite explosions and drilling going on in various parts inside the mountain.
We tried to breathe slowly and deeply, and to stay calm. Not much air inside the mines without ventilation and also due to elevation. The only pressurised air being introduced into the mines was to power the drilling machines.
We ran into a team of several miners under the command of a more experienced miner that was preparing to drill into the wall. Once the machine got going the tiny space inside the tunnel filled with inescapable thudding of the steel rod pounding against the hard rock and a thick haze of fine dust. I saw a few miners wearing rudimentary masks but most I saw in the mines didn’t have any masks or ear protection.
Nearly all of them did have a ball of Coca leaves bulging out of their cheeks. Their mouth and teeth were deeply stained from using it all day and everyday to suppress hunger and fatigue.
We left them a ‘gift pack’ we had bought at Mercado Minero (Mine Market) before entering the mines. It comprised of a bag of Coca leaves, 3 different kinds of catalyst stick (used to aid chewing of Coca leaves), a packet of hand-rolled cigarettes (containing eucalyptus, tobacco, canela – apparently very potent), a 1 ½ Lt bottle of juice, and a bottle of 96% alcohol (for drinking!). We had also bought a stick of dynamite, a fuse, etc. for explosion demonstration, and a mask each for our use.
Having seen what I have seen in the mines, I would strongly urge anyone planning to visit the mines to also buy some ‘real’ and healthy substitute food as well as some safety equipment for the miners. They cost very little for us so buy more than 1 if you can afford it.
We entered a hole in another part of the mines. We climbed down two sets of precariously perched wooden ladders held in place with ropes and wires, down a tight vertical hole, in complete faith of our guide.
We came to a small near-dark cavern where a man was working alone punching a hole in the ceiling with basic tools and his bare hands. I have had experience in working in tight hot places before but it was just daunting to imagine doing this for hours and with very little food.
We visited another branch of the mines where we found another lone man shovelling rocks into a rubber basket (made from old tyres) to be hauled up through a vertical shaft. I gave him a hand with the shovelling for about 30 seconds and my limbs started shaking uncontrollably and my body craved for oxygen. We watched the man for a while while I was recovering. He powered on repeatedly without time for a break because he had to fill up another basket before the first basket was thrown back down as soon as it was emptied out at the top.
And a new trolley-load of rocks arrived for him, being pulled and pushed by several miners.
It was amazing to see what a human body and mind could adapt to and tolerate. It was self imposed slavery. The worst kind there is.
We eventually resurfaced to the land of the living. Fresh air. Sun. Space. Freedom.
The ‘Rich Hill’ that looms over the city is a symbol of both livelihood and misery.
(This post is based on my travel in 2005)