Potosi silver mine in Bolivia was set up by the Spanish with slave labour in 1545. 465 years has not shown a great improvement in working conditions.
A visit to the mine begins at the local market in the town. Here you can buy goods to help the miners in their work. For 10 Bolivianos (1 pound) you can buy them 2 litres of soda and a large packet of coca leaves. If you want, you can also buy them cigarettes (made from marijuana), alcohol (96% proof) or sticks of dynamite, fuses or nitrates to make the explosion more powerful.
The mines of Potosi dominate the surroundings. They are located on the Cerro Rico (rich mountain) which rises up some 600m just beyond the outskirts of the town. The mines have provided wealth and resources to the town for almost 500 years, and the mountain itself is included in religious paintings from colonial times, depicted as the centre of the world.
The mine complex sprawls up the side of the mountain:ramshackle corrugated iron shacks, a few pick up trucks and 4WD jeeps, and mounds of rubble piled high. These are the outer signs of the work which takes place within.
Although the mines are called cooperatives, it is really only the network of tunnels that is owned in common. The miners and pit workers do not share the profits of the mine. Each miner works for himself, obtaining a franchise to mine anywhere he thinks might prove profitable. Often miners work in teams: father and son, brother with brother. 3% of the workers there are now women.
If a profitable seam is found then the miner may subcontact others to help extract the silver or other minerals for him. All raw materials are then brought to the surface and sold to waiting trucks from the refinery who will then take it to the factory for purifying.
If nothing is found, then the miners receive no money. There are a few waged employees in the mines operating essential services for the miners. These people are paid 6 Bolivianos (60p) an hour, for a ten hour day.
A 18% tax is deducted from the miners´income. This is used to pay for the upkeep of the mine and to provide them with some form of pension, health and social security cover. The men are allowed to retire at 66, though they may leave earlier if they suffer from ill health.
Miners can begin work when they choose, and work as long as they require each day – though typically they arrive at 8am and leave at 5pm. An old lady stands at the entrance to the mine counting the miners in, to ensure that there is some record of how many people are inside in the event of an accident.
Although some 8 million slaves (African and indigenous Indians) died in the mines in the time that they were run by the Spanish, casualties in the mines today are relatively rare. These are usually cases of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Far more common are the early death and health related issues affecting the lungs. Asbestos and other harmful silicates occur naturally in the mines, and the atmosphere is also thick with dust from the mining activities.
Entry into the mines is via a simple hole carved into the side of the mountain. The mines stretch down some 150m – a considerable depth, but not enough to warrant the use of lifts, so all progress must be made on foot.
A narrow set of rails lies along every passage for the wagons which move materials around the mines. A fully laded wagon weighs 2.5 tonnes and is pulled by a team of four men. Progress downwards is easy, as the men often just sit inside and let the wagon roll naturally along the gentle slopes. Though the moving wagon is almost impossible to stop, and there is virtually no space between its edge and the tunnel walls.
Upward movement, however, is slow even with an unloaded truck. At one stage in the visit, it was necessary for several members of the group to join in with the men to move the wagon up a particularly steep section of track.
The passageways in the mines themselves are narrow: stooping low is required at all times, even in the relatively spacious sections. Most of the time, it was necessary to walk along half squatting; and in some sections the only option was to crawl along hands and knees.
Pipes run throughout the passageways, frequently crossing them from one side to the other making the ceiling even lower. These pipes were to provide oxygen to the mine network and served three purposes: to provide oxygen to the deepest areas where it was almost non existent, the provide general ventilation to the passageways, and to give oxygen to some of the machinery that operated in the mines.
Occasionally it was possible to hear the hiss of the oxygen from the pipes as it was released into the tunnels nearby. Even in these areas the air felt heavy and thick, as they were far away from the entrances to the mines and any source of natural oxygen.
When considering oxygenation in the mines is should not be forgotten that Potosi is the highest city in the world at 4200m above sea level, and the mines themselves closer to 4600m – only just below the height of Mont Blanc. Even outside, the atmosphere only contains about half the oxygen available at sea level.
During the visit into the mines, which lasted around 2 hours, it was possible to meet with several of the people who worked there and talk with them.
The first was the oldest man in the mine. He was now 60 and had worked there for the last 30 years. We were told that this was exceptional – most men only worked there in their 20s and 30s. When asked how long he would continue to work in the mine he replied that he would stay until he was 70 unless he was forced out earlier by ill health.
At present he was resting, for he was waiting for the men to return with the loaded wagons, so these could be emptied into a large basked to transport the rocks up to the surface.
Another man was working away in a small chamber chiseling out a small niche for his stick of dynamite. It was hot in this lower region of the mine, and he sweated as he repeatedly banged the chisel into the rock above his head. It was almost impossible to reach him, for he was hidden away behind a large pile of rubble and a wooden wheelbarrow, on the far side of a gaping 1m square hole in the ground.
The dynamite sticks are small, and only blow away a small area of rock. The fuses are set to around 3-4 minutes. In an open space this provides ample time to get a far distance away from the explosion; but in the cramped confines of the mines, it is not possible to move a great distance in this time. It was possible to see many marks in the walls from where previous explosions had been made.
After a few minutes the man came out and said that he was done for the day. He had arrived at the mine at 4am, and had worked for about 8hrs or so. The dynamite would be set the following day.
He was in his mid fifties; but did not think he would work for much longer on account of the health problems with his lungs. We gave him some of the juice and coca leaves which he was very pleased with. A couple of people had also bought cigarettes at the market, and he happily accepted a packet of these also.
A third man was sitting in what passed as the rest area of the mine. When I asked him what he was mining for, he replied that as well as looking for silver, he hoped to find topaz since this was a very valuable mineral.
The men live on almost nothing but coca leaves, and are continually chewing them from a large bag. They reckon on getting through 3 bags a day. The coca prevents fatigue, suppresses appetite and provides energy.
The coca seems to serve also as a cure for all ills. We were told that despite the amount of dust and asbestos in the air the miners did not need masks, since the coca leaves served as a filter. One of the group injured her nose when banging into the low ceilings – and a coca leaf was immediately applied to the affected spot to numb the pain and stop the swelling.
Making our way out of the mines, we also passed by the statue of Theo – a larger than life size wooden representation of the devil which served as a good luck symbol for the miners.
They had adopted the figure of the devil in the time of the Spanish occupation. The Spanish had told them that Jesus and God ruled over the world of light on the surface of the earth, but that the underworld and all below the surface was the realm of the devil. Since they worked under ground it was not right that they should look to God, but accept their place among the disciples of the devil.
Each day the miners place a lighted cigarette and a coca leaf in the mouth of this devil as an offering for good luck. On Fridays they also give him alcohol: a drop on his mouth for thirst, a drop on each corner of his torso for the four points of the compass, and a drop on his penis for fertility. It is important to use the purest form of alcohol possible since this will ensure that only the purest minerals and gems are found.