Potosí's Hellish Underworld

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, December 11, 2005

After having spent so much time in Argentina and Chile our arrival back in the developing world was quite an abrupt shock. The road from Villazon to Potosí was one of the worst for a long time (the washboard corrugations must have been at least six inches deep!); the petty corruption and indifference extending down to the government employees and police at the frequent road barriers was maddeningly frustrating; and the landscape of the Cordillera Mochara was bleak and desolate. Welcome to southern Bolivia!

Bolivia is one of South America's poorest countries and is plagued by political instability. Since independence in 1825 there have been almost two hundred changes of government, and several presidents have had their terms prematurely ended by being literally dragged from office and publicly lynched. Despite being a wealthy country in terms of natural resources such as minerals, oil and natural gas, it receives one of the highest levels of foreign aid worldwide. As we drove up from the south every community seemed to have a project sign: World Food Program supported by USDA, Canada, Norway and Japan; CARE Food Security and Sustainable Livelihoods; EU Potable Water Supply, and many others. The majority of indigenous campesinos eke out an abject existence in the frigid heights of the altiplano up to 14,000 ft, whilst in the suburbs of La Paz and Santa Cruz there are ostentatious displays of affluence. It is a country of extreme contrasts, and its people (particularly the politicians!) seem to have an obstinate pride in resisting all reasonable efforts towards development that will benefit everybody. It is a country defined by a brutal and convoluted history, and is seemingly condemned to a rather dismal future.

Maybe the paradoxical nature of the country can best be demonstrated by looking at the history of the silver mines of Potosí. This colonial city is located high in the mountains of the Cordillera Central at an altitude of 13,500 ft and was once the wealthiest city in Latin America. It sits in the shadow of Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) and owes its existence to the fabulously rich veins of silver that permeate the mountain. Although the presence of the precious metal was first noted by a couple of local Quechua Indians in 1544, it was not long before the phenomenal potential came to the attention of the Spanish. For the next thirty years the silver was easily surface-mined and prodigious quantities were shipped back to Spain - enough, it is said, to support the extravagance of the Spanish Crown for the next two centuries. Of course, the shovels weren't manned by the conquistadores, and the local Indians were pressed into service to carry out the dangerous work of extracting and smelting the silver. As the mines became deeper many Indians died of accidents, toxic poisoning and lung diseases, and eventually the Spanish resorted to bringing slaves from Africa to expand the workforce. Believe it or not, during the next three centuries of colonial rule it is estimated that some eight million workers died from the appalling conditions in the mines. However, this was apparently considered a small price to pay for the awesome wealth that the mines produced.

In the early 19th century the fortunes of Potosí waned as the veins of silver became depleted, compounded by decreasing prices for the precious metal and the confusion of the struggle for independence. Eventually other metals such as tin, lead and zinc became more important and the operation of the mines continued through the 20th century, but on a more modest scale than in their "splendid" heyday. In the 1950s the mines were brought under government control and working conditions substantially improved. However, this was short-lived and eventually the nationalized mines were shut down due to continuing strikes, protests and labour unrest. Today the mines are operated as miner-owned cooperatives, under conditions that differ little from those in colonial times.

Having read up on the history of the mines we thought we were prepared for a short visit underground to experience for ourselves the conditions that the miners face everyday. Were we in for a shock!! It is almost impossible to describe the hellish environment in which we found ourselves. At the beginning we could walk upright and the going was relatively easy. But as we descended deeper into the bowels of the earth we were having to crouch and eventually crawl through the narrowing tunnels, and make our way through mud and foot-deep puddles and try to avoid cracking our hard-hats on protruding boulders or timbers. The temperature gradually rose to about 45̊C and we were sweating profusely inside our overalls - and we weren't even doing any work! The air became thick with dust as we neared the areas being actively mined, and there was a strong stench of sulphur and goodness know what other toxic chemicals. We began to find our breathing very laboured and the general atmosphere extremely claustrophobic. Safety precautions were practically non-existent and the infrastructure was dangerously dilapidated. Every so often we needed to flatten ourselves against the tunnel wall in order to give priority to the miners hauling a wagon with about a ton of ore to the surface. Several times we came across a wagon which had run off the decrepit rails and a great deal of extra effort was being expended to get it righted, re-filled and back on its way.

All the work in the mine is done manually with picks and shovels, except for a few groups of miners who can afford pneumatic drills. Even holes for the dynamite sticks are painstakingly prepared with a chisel and sledge hammer over a period of some three hours. Most miners work a twelve hour shift, six days a week, and have been at it for a number of years - not too many years though, as most miners succumb to silicosis pneumonia within twelve to fifteen years. We talked to one miner who had been working in the mines for eighteen years, but this is apparently very much the exception to the rule. The miners who are members of the cooperative make relatively decent money if they work hard enough and are lucky to locate a good vein of metal ore, and they have certain health, welfare and pension benefits. However, many of their helpers are sweating their guts out for a small daily wage, under appalling conditions with absolutely no benefits. For all of them the work is unbelievably hard, the risks are extremely high, and they are sentencing themselves to severe disability or a painful death within a decade or two of starting work in the mines. So why do they do it? Why do they choose this brutal and inhuman way to make a living? Partly because they have been born into a mining culture and are proud of it, but probably mostly because they really have very few other options, and know of no other way of life.

So, if you're having a hard day at the office and think that you have a lousy job.....just take a minute to reflect, and thank your lucky stars that you weren't born to be a silver miner in Potosí!
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