For an out of the ordinary attraction, few things will strike you as a visit in the mine of Potosi will. A town founded by the Spanish during their colonisation of South America upon discovering the riches of the local mountain, the Cerro Rico; Potosi is no charming town. It’s city center has a couple old churches and colonial building but you won’t fall in love with the place: poverty sprouts out of every corner.
It is all the more strange that Potosi not be a flourishing and exuberant town considering the amount of wealth that has been transiting through it for centuries. The silver coming out of the mine has fueled the Spanish monarchy for many centuries before enriching a few local barons of Spanish descent after Bolivia’s independence. Today is not different from the past, although probably slightly better working conditions apply to miners. The product of mining is sold to foreign companies using chemical processes to extract the precious materials from worthless stone at rates that leave miners leaving modestly while companies collect high profits.
A network of cooperatives
Currently, miners are gathered in cooperatives who each exploit part of the mountain. There are about 900 miners spread in about 40 cooperatives.
Each cooperative work in the same way, “socios” (partners, experienced miners with a recognised status) work alongside aspiring socios or apprentices.
Only socios receive a pension and have health insurance. To become a socio, you must learn all the trade of being a miner during years of apprenticeship but not all manage in their life to access that status. It is much like becoming partner in a law firm if you will.
Cerro Rico’s riches
Silver, zinc and lead can be found in the mountain. However, they exist at different levels of quality so finding a vein doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be reaching the jackpot. Most time, miners find veins with lower quality which, in turn, sells for less and does not guarantee a hefty pay day.
Very little modern technology exists in the mine. The majority of miners work is done with dynamite, a pic, a shovel and a wheelbarrow. Slowly breaking through rocks, carrying them through the maze of the mine by hand in a painstakingly slow and demanding process. Dynamite can be bought in the towns’s local market for less than 4 euros a stick, anyone can buy it and it is customary to buy some or some coca leaf to give as a gift to the miners in the mine.
Miners spend hours after hours in the darkness of the mine, usually working alone. Their diet in the mine consists mostly of alcohol and coca leaf, one for courage, the other to cut appetite and give strength. The alcohol of choice is no refined beverage there and consist of alcohol at 90 degrees that miners you encounter gulp down expertly with a visible appreciation. Former miners that handle the tours will tell you of their stories in the mine, where drunk out of their mind, they thought they saw ghosts or spirits, or how some of their colleagues got mad.
People disappear in the mines too, either because of conflicts between cooperatives over territory and shared benefits or because of accidents lead by heavy alcohol consumption or the hazards of fate. Walking and crawling through the maze of the corridors of the mine, it is not hard to imagine accidents happening.
For all this, miners live on average until 40 to 50 years old. The ones that live the longest can apparently only thank their wives who fight of their alcoholism and ensure they are given a proper diet while out of the mine. In case of the death of a miner, a wife can apparently join in the efforts of the cooperative although we were told they would not mine but rather help with other tasks surrounding the mining efforts.
It is truly humbling to visit the mine and imagine the lives of people dedicating their lives to digging through the rocks, suffering the consequences of such a lifestyle and committing to risking their life for a slightly better income than the average Bolivian. You come out of such a visit vowing never to complain about the discomfort of sitting behind a desk or the petty frustrations you work gives you.
A little history too
Originally, Spanish colons enslaved millions of Andinos to work and die in the mines to fuel thirst of the Spanish monarchy. It is estimated that more than 2 millions people died in the mines during the Spanish occupation. The Catholic religion and its symbolism was used to keep local Andinos obedient and the image of the devil was spread to curb any attempt at rebellion. More traditional and brutal methods of controlling people were obviously used as well alongside this mental conditioning.
It is ironic to see today that locals created a devil-looking god, protecting them in the mines, which is displayed in several places in the mines and given offerings of coca leaves, alcohol, tobacco in the pure tradition of the prior religious beliefs of Incas and pre-inca civilisations.
To take home
All the minerals extracted from the Potosi mines end up shipped abroad to become components of new electronic gadgets or to be turned into jewelries. The phone you have in your pocket probably has some silver or lead that was extracted in Potosi. Cherish more your electronic devices and jewels, make efforts to protect them more and have them recycled, people sacrifice their lives and health for them.