Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Journey into the Mines of Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia

'The Mountain that Eats Men'

Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) looms large over the narrow cobbled streets of the city to which it gave birth: Potosí at the southern end of the Bolivian Altiplano. At 4,090 metres, it is the highest mining city in the world. The silver lodes of Cerro Rico had been worked from Pre-Incan times, but were exploited on a grand scale by the Spanish Conquistadores making the mines of Potosí world famous. Indeed, novelist, Miguel de Cervantes, placed the words, Vale un Potosí (It is worth a Potosí), into the mouth of his hero, Don Quixote. The ore derived from these mines bankrolled the Hapsburg Empire for centuries, exciting the envy and suspicion of all other monarchs in Europe. It was said that you could have built a bridge of silver ingots from Potosí to Madrid from the ore mined there.

Just over a century after the Spanish arrived, Potosí had mushroomed into one of the biggest cities in Latin America and was among the wealthiest in the world. But this meteoric rise came at a huge cost to human life. Cerro Rico can be seen as a 4,824 metre monument to the tragedy of Spanish conquest. And Potosí, now a World Heritage Site (WHS) boasting a number of ornate Baroque churches, a virtually intact mint and opulent colonial buildings, was formerly described as ‘a monstrous Babylon’ that represented the largest site of physical exploitation in the world during the colonial period (1546-1825). Countless indigenous men from across the Andes were press ganged by the Spanish into servitude to work the mines under the Pre-Colombian mita system. Alongside black African slaves, the miteros toiled in the most appalling and dangerous conditions, often sleeping underground for weeks on end. Many never saw their homes or families again, killed in the mines, literally worked to death or poisoned by the toxic effects of mercury used on the patio (ore processing) floors. Although, unsurprisingly, records of fatalities were not kept, it is estimated that over eight million mineworkers perished in Potosí during colonial times. Consequently, it was also said that a road comprised of the bones of these hapless victims of colonial cupidity could have been built from Cerro Rico, ‘the mountain that eats men’, to Madrid.

By the early nineteenth century, the output of the Cerro de Potosí began to significantly decline as the silver deposits worked in the rich oxidised zones in the upper part of the mountain were mostly worked out. Compounded by looting during the 1820s Wars of Independence, Potosí’s star began to wane. However, deeper tin lodes (along with other base minerals such as zinc, lead and cadmium) were being mined in the Cerro de Potosí by the twentieth century, supplanting silver. In the 1930’s, a reaction set in towards the ‘tin barons’ that controlled the majority of Bolivia’s mines and were perceived to have established a stranglehold on national politics and to be exploiting the indigenous people; groups of workers banded together to fight for more autonomy. The tin barons were eventually marginalized by the industry’s nationalisation of the mining sector and the emergence of the Bolivian Mining Corporation (COMIBOL) following the revolution of 1952.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the tin market in 1985, emergency economic measures by the government resulted in massive layoffs of miners and considerable restructuring of the mining sector, including the decentralisation of COMIBOL into five semiautonomous and privatised mining enterprises in 1986. The vast majority of mineworkers were left to survive on their own with no state or foreign investment. They formed cooperatives which function under an informal labour system where the product of one’s labour accrues to the group’s total output in exchange for a share of the market value of the minerals extracted once operating costs and other deductions have been made. The ore is concentrated in local mills to which each co-operative pays a fee, and then sold in tonnes to privately operated smelters. COMIBOL still owns Cerro Rico but licenses its operation to a handful of multinationals and over 200 cooperatives who pay to rent an area of the mountain in which they have been granted permission to work. The rise in mineral prices in recent years has witnessed a recovery and expansion of the mining sector. Over 16,000 miners are presently estimated to be at work in the mines of Potosí, most working in cooperatives primarily extracting low grade silver bearing ore from the old workings in Cerro Rico, which is becoming dangerously unstable…

The Miners’ Market

Attracted by its remarkable history, Martin and I made the journey to Potosí in April of this year. We arrived on the outskirts of the city just as the first light of dawn began to radiate across the bare and barren hillsides, lending them warm tones of ochre, magenta and sienna. Although it has been a WHS since 1985, to suggest that Potosí possesses a charm comparable to other WHS cities in the Andes is stretching the imagination somewhat. It is bitterly cold at night and the altitude means you fight for every breath walking up its steep cobbled streets, choked by sooty clouds of cheap petrol fumes from the incessant traffic and the unavoidable inhalation of the beige haze of fine mineral dust that seems to seep into every nook and cranny. Many parts of the city are gritty working neighbourhoods and numerous buildings in the historic centre look decidedly down at heel; an atmosphere of quiet neglect appears to have settled over the streets along with the fuel soot and mineral dust.

Guidebooks advertise half day guided mining tours into Cerro Rico and there are many operators in Potosí to choose from, all of which have agreements with various cooperatives to permit tourists to enter their workings. We used Koala Tours who charged us ten US dollars each for a trip into Mina Candelaria (Candlemas Mine, after the famous February Catholic fiesta). Kitted out with well-worn protective overalls, a helmet, battery powered cap lamp, wellies and colourful bandanas at the company’s base, eight of us set off for the Cerro early one morning. 

Our minibus groaned sluggishly up a maze of narrow streets, spewing clouds of black fumes before entering a bustling square where it shuddered to a halt. At its centre was a huge rocky mound at the base of which was a grilled adit entrance with a mine wagon behind it. Atop this mound, supposedly meant to represent Cerro Rico, was a gleaming golden figure of a miner holding a pneumatic drill in one hand and a gun aloft in the other; it spoke volumes about Bolivian history! My eye then caught another resplendent figure kneeling below, a chola woman, complete with characteristic full skirts and bowler hat, brandishing a small hammer in her right hand and a rock in her left. She is one of the palliris, female ore-breakers who fossick through the unstable mine dumps of Cerro Rico, work that is not without danger, to grub an informal living to help maintain their families. A reminder that the women of Potosí can also fall victim to ‘the mountain that eats men’.

We then walked up a steep street towards the Miners’ Market which was thronged with squatting vendors hawking goods from hand carts and fast food stalls feeding ravenous groups of miners just off-shift. We passed scores of shops little more than holes in the wall, their contents spilling out onto the narrow pavements. Peering into their dimly lit interiors we could see that these were mining stores. The rickety shelves were crammed floor to ceiling with everything a miner requires: overalls, gloves, masks, wellies, helmets, lamps, battery packs, drill steels, picks, hammers, bottled water, fizzy drinks and plastic bottles filled with alcohol potable (neat alcohol made from cane sugar). Amid the clutter on the floor of one store were bulging plastic bags filled with light pink grains marked ‘ANFO’. Surely not ammonium nitrate, widely used as a bulk explosive?! I stood in mild bewilderment as my eyes alighted on an open box containing sticks of dynamite. ‘Go inside’, smiled our guide, ‘you have to buy some gifts to give to the miners we will meet on our tour’. I still find it hard to believe that high explosives are stored so casually in the scores of shops lining this street and are sold to anyone, no licence required, no questions asked. Along with bottles of water and fizzy drinks, we purchased two explosive kits, each containing a small plastic bag of ANFO, a stick of dynamite and a coil of safety fuse for the princely sum of 17 Bolivianos (about 1.50 euro) each!

Almost opposite the mining store, next to a chola woman busily hacking the head off an alpaca’s carcass, was a coca leaf seller, prematurely aged, the harshness of life on the Altiplano etched into the thousands of lines on her brown and wizened face. ‘First explosives, now drugs’, I thought! The guide explained that the miners do not eat underground, but rely on the stimulating effects of chewing coca leaves to dull their hunger and stave off fatigue during their arduous 10 hour plus shifts. We bought a couple of bags of the pale green, strong smelling leaves, drawing an almost toothless smile from the vendor.

The Rape of ‘Mother Earth’

After a short journey out of the city we stopped outside a series of crude hutches above one of around 39 ore treatment plants dotted about the mountainside. In these hutches, a cooperative’s ore is stored and assayed before being processed so the group can receive its fair share of the price of the concentrate. The mill was truly primitive, very noisy and fumy, yet the workers wore no protective equipment. Our guide explained that the ore is processed with various chemicals and reagents to separate the silver, casually waving his hand at an open vat of cyanide nearby: ‘it used to be worse when mercury was used’! Several of our group looked horrified and promptly covered their faces with their bandanas! The ore is reduced in ball mills then treated in froth flotation cells. Base minerals occurring with the silver ore, such as lead and zinc, were previously discarded as it was not considered commercially viable to extract them. But rising mineral prices has resulted in an increased recovery of all minerals. We suspect that the untreated effluent from this mill eventually discharged into a local river system…

Behind the processing plant, Cerro Rico rose against the deep blue sky of the Altiplano like a giant ochre-coloured anthill. It contains more than 650 separate entrances and is literally honeycombed with hundreds of thousands of tunnels that follow increasingly impoverished mineral veins. With limited state regulation and little concern for safety, the mine workings are randomly driven and the whole mountain is now believed to be inherently unsafe; catastrophic collapses are predicted. Indeed, all mining near the peak was suspended in 2009 after the ground there began to subside. Over 500 years of mineral extraction has already decreased the mountain’s height significantly. This epitomises the rape of ‘Mother Earth’ and on a grand scale, for in indigenous Andean culture, Cerro Rico is adjudged to be female and mountains represent Pachamama, ‘the Mother Earth’. This fact was quickly understood by the conquering Spaniards who ensured that she became synonymous with the Virgin Mary to convert the indigenous peoples to Catholicism. This association is especially evident in Potosí’s most famous painting on display in the Royal Mint - the anonymous eighteenth century La Virgen del Cerro - where the Virgin Mary is portrayed as the mountain of Cerro Rico.

Cooperative mineworkers can earn three to five times the amount of money made by those in menial service jobs or agriculture, although by western standards their wages are still pitifully low. Moreover, they are not immune to exploitation and many complain that the managers take the lion’s share of the collective income leaving them with barely enough money to get by on each month. But with Potosí being the poorest state in the poorest country in South America, mining is the area’s lifeblood. The costs to human health or the environment are far outweighed by the driving need to feed large families. More than half of the 240,000 residents residing in the city whose dusty houses creep towards the mountainside as if lured by an invisible magnetic force, depend directly on the mines for their livelihoods. It is not hard to see why Potosinos have good reason to thank Pachamama, making daily libations to her for the gifts she has bestowed on Cerro Rico…

Mina Candelaria

Our minibus continued ever higher up the mountainside, lurching over rutted tracks and throwing up clouds of ochre coloured dust, eventually arriving outside the ramshackle entrance to Mina Candelaria, over 4,500 metres above sea level. Possessing four levels and running continuously for over 300 years, it is one of the oldest mines in the Cerro. Crudely built stone buildings half set in the ground with roofs of galvanized iron and plastic sheeting held down by rocks and bits of old machinery, cluster around the mine’s main portal. An empty wagon rumbled by on a tramway to the entrance portal, pushed by a short, but powerfully built miner who disappeared into the darkness of Level One. We followed him in to begin our two hour tour. The portal walls were initially coated in fine dust, but as we progressed deeper into the mine, blooms of bright yellow sulphur appeared on everything. Several miners passed us on the way in to start their shift. Our guide knew them all; he had once worked here as a miner himself. Bent double in places, the high altitude immediately began to take its toll and it became harder to breathe as the temperature inside the level rose uncomfortably.

About 400 metres in and close to an ore chute encrusted with sulphur, we stopped. Our guide announced that we were going to clamber on our hands and knees over a pile of loose rock to access a short, low drive beyond. Two of our group instantly announced that they were too afraid to continue and headed back down the tunnel to the surface. Inside the hot, airless drive, gasping for breath and seeking somewhere to sit, I staggered about like a drunkard. I was suddenly aware of a figure close to me. Turning my head, my cap lamp illuminated a grotesque horned and mustached clay figure sporting an enormous erect phallus. It was seated amid a heap of empty tin cans, plastic bottles and crumbling cigarettes, garlanded in luridly coloured paper streamers and covered in rotting coca leaves. ‘Meet El Tío, the Lord of the Underworld’, announced our guide. Just as local people make daily libations to Pachamama, the miners make offerings each Friday to El Tío (literally ‘The Uncle’), who is associated with pre-Hispanic huacas (revered objects) as well as the Christian Devil. He is a central figure in the ritual life of Bolivian mining communities. As there is no state enforced health and safety regimen in the mines of Cerro Rico, and cost cutting by the cooperatives sees little attempt to shore up tunnels or replace failing timberwork, the miners place their faith in Tío, presenting him with gifts of alcohol, coca leaves, cigarettes and llama blood in return for his goodwill and guarantee of health, safety and good fortune in the mines.

Returning to the tunnel on Level One, we then began the hellish descent down through ancient workings via Level Two to Level Three. Used nowadays only as an access route for the levels above and below, the air in Level Two is foul and thick with dust. The way on involves crawling on all fours in places through tunnels barely large enough to permit an adult to pass and under rotting stulls holding up large quantities of deads. Squeezing through partially collapsed raises and shimmying down dodgy stull-work within a winze which bottoms out dangerously close to an open stope, are indelibly etched on my memory. Standing next to an old windlass above this winze, our guide explained that before an electrical winch was installed a few years ago to raise the ore from Level Three to Level One, the miners had to carry over 40 kg of ore up through these tight rocky passageways in bags slung over their backs. By now my face was beaded with perspiration and my heart thumped incessantly against my ribcage as I fought for every breath in the impossibly hot, dry and foul air. The acrid sulphurous taste of the dust, caught in the back of my throat, made me cough till I gagged. ‘I’ve been in safer abandoned mines in Cornwall’, I thought as I clambered down another horrible raise, only to arrive on a narrow rocky shelf where I light-headedly gazed into a deep stope that promptly swallowed the light from my cap lamp. One slip here…

It was with considerable relief that I finally emerged into a tunnel in which I could stand upright. ‘This is Level Three, the “Gringo Level”’, our guide jokingly explained. A low hiss from ventilation pipes bringing clean air down from the surface filled the tunnel. It was now far easier to breathe. This was the main haulage way where ore from Level Four was raised and trammed along in wagons to be sorted before being hauled to the surface. We followed the tram tracks for some distance before ascending a short ladderway into a rock strewn drive. A hammering sound greeted us and in the gloom a miner appeared at the forehead. Alone in this airless drive, one cheek bulging with a wad of coca leaves and drenched in perspiration, he was single jacking a bore hole with a drill steel for an explosive charge. It was like a scene straight out of the nineteenth century. I confess to being moved as I shook this man’s hand and gave him our gifts of explosives and coca leaves. We then returned to the main haulage way where several men passed us, straining to push heavily laden wagons of ore which constantly jumped the tracks. Some were evidently not long out of childhood. They were conveying the ore to their colleagues who were shovelling it into rubber kibbles to be hauled up a shaft by the electric winch. Most were working, red eyed, amid clouds of choking dust without masks. It unsettled me to think that these young men, who stopped work to greet us and humbly accepted our gifts of coca leaves, fizzy drinks and water, are unlikely to reach middle age.

We were not taken to Level Four, currently the main work area, where the horrors of the working conditions may be left to the imagination. The climb back up through the old men’s workings of Level Two was even more arduous, stifling and airless than the descent and I was mightily relieved to see the bright pin point of light of the entrance portal appear in the reeking sulphurous darkness. Cerro Rico is no model of operational safety and its mineworkers toil in shocking conditions that lag way behind the rest of the world. And this mountain is still eating men. On average, life expectancy among the miners is less than forty years and several men die each week from silicosis or through mining related accidents. Countless women in Potosí are widows or widows in waiting and most face an uncertain future of bringing up large families on their own. However, it might be somewhat disingenuous to see these men and their families purely as victims. They value their independence, are proud of their work in the mines and receive better pay for their efforts than they could obtain if employed in menial jobs outside the mining sector. I do, however, question the wisdom of allowing hundreds of tourists each day to enter workings that are unregulated, inherently unsafe and, quite frankly, a death trap. Given that the current high price of minerals has stimulated mining activity and the fact that the whole of Cerro Rico has been rendered so fragile and unstable because it is literally riddled with mine workings 'the mountain that eats men’ could soon find itself feasting on unsuspecting tourists.

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