The silver mines

Trip Start Jan 16, 2006
Trip End May 27, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, March 2, 2006

When some one said to me, you have to see the silver mines of Potosi i thought to myself, what can be so exciting about a silver mine. It turns out that i was dead wrong! The miners here have the second most dangerous job in the world, second only to the cray fisherman of northern Alaska. The mortality rate of the miners in this town of about 100,000 people is currently up at about 2 miners per month. Dangers include, regular mine collapses, noxious gases not to mention the frequent use of dynamite with little or no safety regulations at all.

In Fact Potosi is the only place on the planet where you can buy dynamite completely unregulated. Its a terrorists paradise. So on arrival we duly went to the miners store and bought some sticks of dynamite, cocoa leaves and alcohol to offer to the miners that
work in these terrible conditions. The other shocking truth about the harsh lives of these miners is that their life expectancy is so short, even if they do manage to survive all of the other dangers. A miner working in the deepest mines (about 2kms underground)has a life expectancy of about 10 to 15 years at the most. They regularly start working when they are 20years old and most of them are dead before or shortly after 30! Why anyone would want to put themselves through this short torcherous road to death can only be explained by the lucky few miners who have actually made it rich.

It works like this, a miner either works for another miner or he buys a plot of his own, the government owns the mines and the miners have to buy their plots from the state and if they are real lucky you may get a plot with a decent amount of silver in it. There are of course lots of other minerals and metals that they also mine for but silver is the most valuable. Most "veins" of silver are generally 1 to 2cm in width and can last for many months if not years of mining. We heard about the story of one lucky miner who literally struck it rich on a 2 meter wide "vein" of silver this is going back quite a few years and now he currently employs 3-400 miners just to work his plot. It goes with out saying that this guy is currently the richest man in Potosi with regular daily harvests hitting 20-25 thousand dollars daily.

Then there is the whole miners culture that has grown around this towns biggest industry. The mines are clearly underground and most miners being devout Catholics as is the norm in South America pray to god above ground but believe that Gods powers end at the entrance to the mines. From there on there is only one god the lord of the underworld, the Devil himself. They call him Tio (uncle in Spainish) and to be safe in his domain you have to pay him respect and make offerings to him to keep you safe. This generally involves making an offering to one of the 200 statues of Tio dotted around the mines of Potosi. Offerings are made with cigarettes, cocoa leaves and alcohol all of which the miners use to keep them going for long periods underground. Its goes without saying that most miners look about 30years older than they actually are due to the harsh working conditions and battered,drink fueled lives that they lead outside the mines.

I had a go at trying to mine silver myself and it was bloody hard work i can tell you,so after much fumbling around in the near dark and making some offerings to Tio and chatting to some miners and donating them our wears we headed to the surface keen for the cold light of day....
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