workers pay homage to "tio" the devil inside the mine, as this is his domain inside pachamama (mother earth)...outside they pray to the catholic God.
This was one of the best experiences of the trip. NOt in a happy, smiley way, but in a reality check way.
We were equipped with masks and head lights. We had signed a disclaimer saying we understand this is a real mine and we would not hold the operators responsible for accidents. 10 years ago,a team of european engineers gave the prinicpal tunels 5 years at most before cave in. Not the best statistic to learn when you are down there.
Our guide was witty and kept us laughing, as an antidote to the very oppresive feeling of crawling on your belly through dark tunnels thick with dust, seeing 8 year old kids trotting past you, and feeling some serious heat.
we saw the refineries beforehand, which was enlightening, and the day before we had seen the casa de la moneda, the place where the spaniards minted the coins before shipping them off. Recently, 400 million pounds worth of sunken spanish dubloons were found, the overwhelming majority of which goes to the divers.
It’s so poor, it makes you want to weep,” says Bolivian historian Valentin Abecia. He’s not exaggerating. A visit to Potosi, which helped to maintain the splendour of Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries, is today a spine-chilling experience.
Around two billion ounces of silver were extracted from the city’s Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) during the Spanish colonial era. Cerro Rico silver paved Potosi’s streets, fuelled the European Renaissance and helped fund the “Invincible Armada”, the Spanish fleet that sailed against Elizabethan England in 1588.
But today Potosi is dying. “When a mine closes, all that’s left is a ghost town,” says the city’s mayor, René Joaquino. Something of Potosi ebbs away whenever a seam of metal is exhausted or world mineral prices drop. Most of the mines closed down after a crisis in 1985 and many people left for good. Two years later, when the Bolivian government introduced new incentives to mining, unemployed miners began to trickle back and set up 50 co-operatives.
Most of the city’s population of around 120,000 are Quechua Indians, who live by scratching at what is left in the old mines. They have no access to modern technology and no social security protection. There is practically no middle class in Potosi.
In 1572, in colonial times, Spanish Viceroy Francisco de Toledo created a system of forced labour called “la mita”. Every seven years, for a period of four months, all males between 18 and 50 were ordered to work in the mines. They were paid a pittance and rarely saw the light of day. Eighty per cent of the male population of the 16 provinces of the viceroyalty of Peru died in these conditions. “Every peso coin minted in Potosi has cost the life of 10 Indians who have died in the depths of the mines,” wrote Fray Antonio de la Calancha in 1638.
Mining methods have changed little over the years. The miners still toil from dawn till dusk. Generators pump air into the tunnels so they can breathe. Children still wriggle into tiny places where adults cannot go. Working sometimes for 10 hours or more a day in extreme temperatures, the miners keep going by chewing coca leaves. Two-thirds of the population have respiratory ailments.
“Barely 20 per cent of the mine-workers are actually members of the co-operatives,” says Joaquino. “The other 80 per cent are casual labourers who earn next to nothing. They are peasant migrants from the north, the poorest part of the department of which Potosi is the capital.”
The historic centre of Potosi, where the Spanish settlers once lived, is today home to a small middle class. It is ringed by a poverty belt inhabited by miners who work in the co-operatives. Both these areas are surrounded by a wider poverty belt filled with those who have fled the hunger of the countryside to hire themselves out as unskilled labourers in the mines.
Peasant women from the north come to the city to beg. They sleep on the ground in the markets, numb with cold, cradling in their arms the babies they have brought with them. Bernardina Soles has had 10 children. Five of them have died–a grim reminder of an infant mortality rate of 135 per 1,000. Her dream is to take some of her children away from her home village, where they could only have two years of primary schooling. The illiteracy rate in the department of Potosi is 30.8 per cent.
It was saddening, to think that the city dwellers (highest city in the world by the way) are faced with that red giant from every angle....a constant reminder of how much wealth has been exploited from their territory, and from which they have hardly benefitted. 92.3% work there for lack of other options...a curse, if you ask me.