The Mountain That Eats Men

Potosí was founded in 1546 and was once one of the biggest and richest cities in the Americas due to the wealth of silver found in the mountain, Cerro Rico. The mines produced around 60,000 tons of silver, which brought significant wealth to the Spanish empire through centuries of exploitation of local indigenous people and African slaves who worked and died in the mountain.

It has been claimed that up to 8 million people have died whilst working in the mine or through illnesses contracted as a result of spending so much time underground. Consequently, the locals now refer to it as the mountain that eats men. The mine is still in operation today, although there is very little silver left. The digging of over 90 kilometres of tunnels has seen the 4300m high mountain drop around 100m in height, and an American engineer has predicted that within 50 years the whole mountain will collapse. Despite this, the miners still continue their back breaking work, scraping for whatever minerals they can in horrendous conditions.

While we were in Potosí we had the opportunity to visit the mine. Whilst we were a little apprehensive about the dangers of an operating mine, curiosity overtook sensibility and we went underground to experience it first hand.

Cerro Rico and the Potosí mine.

While we have been travelling we both recently read George Orwell's investigation into the coal mining towns of 1930's Northern England, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). It provides great descriptions of the conditions which resonated with what we saw in Potosí. So, to help describe the experience we have borrowed a few of his passages.

“When you get down a coal-mine it is important to try and get to the coal face when the “fillers” are at work…when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are there – heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.”

The documentary The Devil's Miner follows the story of two young brothers who were forced to work in the mines to support their family after their father died. It describes the combined fear and reverance of the devil, or Tio as it is locally referred to. While most of the miners are Christian, when they are underground they worship the devil because they believe that he controls the mine and that Christ has no power underground.

The statue above is one example of a Tio which we saw inside the mine. The miners pray to the statue upon entering the mine so that they might find a good vein of silver or be protected from explosions, toxic gas, silicosis and falling rocks. They give offerings such as coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to the Tio statues, which can be found in every major mine within the mountain. They also perform sacrifices, such as slaughtering llamas at the entrance to the mine and throwing blood on the walls and doors to appease the Tio so that he will be satisfied with the sacrifice and won't take a human life. The film was really interesting and incredibly sad. Definately worth watching to get an insight into the horrendous conditions faced by men and children working in the mines even to this day.

The Devil's Miner (Trailer)

 

The miners in Potosí work long shifts without a break and may work up to 24 hours, even the children. They depend on small comforts to make their day 'tolerable'. Coca leaves and cigarrettes are common comforts to stave off hunger and fatigue.

George Orwell described the conditions inside the mines in England, which have not changed much in modern times in Bolivia…

“the heat…in some mines is suffocating – and the coal dust that stuffs up your throat and nostrils and collects along your eyelids, and the unending rattle of the conveyor belt, which in that space is rather like the rattle of a machine gun.”

Although there is no conveyor belt, the use of pneumatic drills and dynamite exposes miners to high levels of toxic dust. As per the photos below, miners are exposed to copper sulphate, sulphur, arsenic and asbestos all day, every day, in heat up to 40 degrees celsius.

The orange crystals are copper sulphate.

Poisonous minerals accumulate on the wooden beams.

The mine is in a precarious state. Walking through the mine, we often passed under broken beams, tunnels could be back brackingly low and at times we were forced to crawl on our hands and knees and slide down vertical tunnels. Can you imagine 90 kms of this?
“In the beginning, of course, a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal. But as the seam gets worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get further and further from the pit (entrance).
You do not notice the effect of this till you have gone a few hundred yards. You start off, stooping slightly, down the dim-lit gallery, eight or ten feet wide and about five high…Every yard or two there are wooden props holding up the beams and girders; some of the girders have buckled into fantastic curves under which you have to duck.
I am handicapped by being tall, but when the roof falls to four feet or less it is a tough job for anybody…You have not only got to bend double, you have also got to keep your head up all the while so as to see the beams and girders and dodge them when they come.”
The combination of heat, dust and lack of oxygen meant that we were often forced to stop for breath. We wore bandanas over our faces to protect us from breathing in the toxic dust but it was impossible to breathe properly though it, which inevitably meant we had to keep removing it (and thus inhale the dust). No wonder the miners all get silicosis and other lung diseases.
At one stage during the underground tour we stopped to catch our breath. Our guide did not notice and kept walking with the group. We were soon left behind. We gave chase but we could not see any lights or hear anyone.
After walking for a few minutes we came upon a fork in the tunnel. We called out to our group but there was no response. The walls seemed to swallow our voices. Trying not to freak out, we took a gamble and kept walking in the same direction, continuing to call out into the darkness. We came across another junction with no-one there, which shocked us. We waited a few minutes and resolved to carry on, again trying to head in the same direction.
After about ten minutes we caught up to the group. Saskia confronted the guide but instead of apologising for leaving us behind our guide told us we were being too slow. He was particularly unsympathetic as he used to be a miner and clearly did not want to be there, but we learnt he was also hungover from the night before and had just finished joking with everyone else in our group about how he got lost in the mine with a tour group once before. As far as we are concerned it was his job to make sure the group was with him; our safety is his responsibility.
Two obvious mistakes were made. Firstly, there should have been two guides, one at the front and one at the back (as is common on caving tours back home). Secondly, the guide should have retreated to the previous junctions when it became clear we weren't there. Poor mistakes for an experienced outfit. We were with Koala Tours and on the basis of this experience we would not recommend them.
Setting that aside, everyone in the group was grateful to leave by the end of the tour. We were only there for a few hours and must have seemed incredibly precious to the hardened miners who literally kill themselves working there, but as an outsider who has never experienced anything like that before, it was intense! Whilst it was definately an eye-opening experience, it is not something that we would want to do again. We remain embarrassed to know that we will never have to work in conditions like this when for some this is their best option.

 

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