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Underneath the ‘City of Silver’

‘The streets are lined with silver’ it was once said of Potosi; a small city in southern Bolivia, nestled in the Andes at almost 4,000 meters above sea level. The city boasts few impressive features beyond the pleasant colonial square and religious buildings and you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d walked into the wrong city – not one that was once compared to Paris in terms of its wealth.

Only on the horizon do you notice the key to the cities fame; a mountain scarred with the multi coloured spoil and till from almost 500 years of exploitation, which now resembles a giant earthworks rather than the great mountains which surround the city.  The mountain is known as Cero Rico –Rich Hill. In three centuries of Colonial rule, 62,000 metric tonnes (137 million pounds) of silver were mined here, marking Potosi as one of the largest and richest cities in the world.

Silver production began to decline in the early 1800s and with it, Potosi’s wealth, and its wealthy rulers, began to drift away. The people of Potosi still believed in the wealth of Cero Rico and the mountain is still worked today. As it has been since 1544, when the Spanish first discovered silver here, the mines are still the reason why most people come to this place, but today it is foreigners of a different sort, with sightseeing, not conquering, on their minds.

A trip into the maze of tunnels and shafts within Cero Rico is an unforgettable experience, arranged though one of a dozen operators within the city. Miners are staggering through poverty with conditions that have changed little since the Spanish first made their fortune here in the 1500s. A place of work so unpleasant, even the most stoic of visitors can fail to be moved.

Our group of seven is gathering round a small stall in the Miner’s Market, a few streets of the outskirts of town given over to supply the miners with all their needs. Dozens of small wooden huts offer coca leave, coke (a cola), cigarettes, snacks and drinks, while larger shops offer picks, shovels, clothing and flashlights.

Before we venture into the bowels of Cero Rico we are introduced to the miners’ favourite treats: coca leave, coke and orangeade.  Everyone in the group purchases one or two items that we can distribute to the workers we meet. The group also clubs together to buy a few sticks of dynamite, fertiliser and fuses to provide a more practical gift to the miners.

I am often wary of providing handouts; tourists hold a unique position to be able to both help and destroy the communities in which they visit. Far from helping a local community, or individuals, with small gifts, a person’s generosity can be perceived as an easy way to make money. Large numbers of local people, especially children, can resort to begging (in one form or another) to part tourists from their possessions under the guise of charity. Carefully managed donations, most effective through a third party, such as a community leader or school head for example, however can provide valuable assistance to communities to help ease themselves out of poverty.

Handing out gifts in the Potosi mines doesn’t’ fall into either of these categories, but once inside it is clear the miners work ethic is more than most will ever understand. When the Spanish first discovered silver here, forced labour ensured high productivity and while every miner now enters of his own free will, working conditions have changed little.

We are kitted out in overalls, a hardhat and head lamp before we are driven up the steep sides of Cero Rico, with stunning views down to the city and over the surrounding mountains, to one of the mines.

A few adobe huts – storage for the miners’ work gear – are dotted around the entrance. Several rock walls hold back various grades and colours of rock, and two rail tracks lead from the top of the storage areas into a small hole in the side of the mountain; framed by thick wooden supports.

The air is crisp and cool, a steady wind blows from the city, yet none of us seem keen to enter the mine and seek protection. The small dark entrance seems to summarise all the stories we have heard about this place; few have been good. I’m keen to see for myself yet I’m hesitant to make the first into the bowels of Cero Rico. 

Our guide Eusabio is a large man who worked in the mines for several years, he is among the few miners who are able to find other work before contracting mal de mina – the illness of the mine – silicosis of the lungs. The average miner works for just ten years; after which time health invariable sees an end to their employment. The life expectancy for the average miner is just 40 years; if they are lucky enough to escape accidents inside the mine, the constant exposure to poisonous gases take their toll. Almost every miner who has worked here for more than a few years has some degree of silicosis, yet he will only receive his pension once the disease consumes 80-90% of his lungs; only then can most afford to give up work, by which time it is already too late to enjoy the short life that remains.

Eusabio leads the way into the darkness, we flick on our head lamps and follow; there is an immediate stillness as the wind disappears and we follow a narrow passage, just a meter wide, just over 1.5m high. The only sounds come from the plod of our boots on the dirt and the constant hiss of leaking air pipes that supply compressed air to the miners’ tools. A pair of narrow rail tracks run within the tunnel, installed to run the heavy ore carts from the working face to the stores outside; pushed only by hand. After 50 meters or so, the cramped tunnel opens up slightly and I can stand comfortable, it is also wider and dozens of miners pass us as they make their way to work. The tunnel is an arch of carefully places blocks, created when the mine was first dug about 200 years ago. The entrance (or more vital, the exit) is the most important part of the mine, and extra care is taken to insure it is solid. We saw no such attention to detail further inside the mine.

The miners that pass wear no special clothing; just worn dirty trousers and shirt. Most have hard hats, but not all. Many carry just a small flashlight, others have gas powered torches; hand held that burn a small flame into the centre of a reflective disk. As antiquated as they look (and they are old; many passed down through generations), they are surprisingly effective, and a flickering flame can help to alert the miner to a lack of oxygen where he is working.

Close to every entrance, there is a shrine- usually in a tunnel away from the main activity- and we take a narrow tunnel away from the rails and carefully constructed roof. Here the mine appears to be solid stone- there is only the occasional support on the jagged walls and roof. I assume this is because the tunnels can support themselves, but dare not ask.

In a small opening there is a figure that seems appropriate for such a hellish place, but is none the less a surprising sight in a place so devoid of anything except the most practical.

Adorned in streamers and a confetti of coca leaves, gently illuminated by the numerous torch light sits a life-sized papier-mâché statue of the devil; huge red horns, a wide open, smoking mouth- from the several cigarettes that are placed there- and heavy built limbs. The statue boasts also a large erect penis, symbolic of fertility. Virtually all the miners are catholic and know that god is in the heavens and the devil is below; so here, in a strange twist on traditional religion, they pray to el diablo for their success and safety.

Once a week the miners gather here to pray for productive seams, a safe place to work and no cave-ins. Our guide made his own prayer: ‘ Please no cave ins, no dangers, keep these people safe.’

‘And send me more Japanese tourists’ he adds as an afterthought. ‘Good tips’ he says by way of explanation’

From this point we walk into a narrow, low, tunnel, first crouching, then crawling on our bellies, over rocks and dirt, before we reach a large opening. We have past into another mine, just one route in the maze that links the 300 or so mines that snake their way within Cero Rico. ‘They meet up by mistake sometimes. Usually there is no one here when they drill through’

‘What happens if there is?’ I ask. Eusabio. He gives me a sad smile and a shrug – a ‘that’s life’ kind of gesture which he would use almost every time the question of safety or accidents were brought up.

Since the Spanish first started exploiting the mine in the 1500s an estimated eight million people have died from working here: from accidents, lung disease or poisoning- mainly from mercury, used in the production of silver. It seems that no one denies how dangerous it is to work here, but no one speaks of it openly.

In this cavern like tunnel we catch our first sight of miners at work, unloading a cart that had fallen off its tracks. They tell us that they only narrowly avoided the cart falling on their legs. We see that familiar shrug again as members of the group ask after their well-being. We gather round the cart in an attempt to lift it back on the tracks but it is a hopeless task. The kilos of ore weighing far too much for seven men to even lift an inch and we leave the three miners to shovel out the ore, replace, and then refill the cart.

As unsettling as these dark tunnels are, they are none the less fascinating; varying from solid stone, to loose dirt and earth, scarred by the marks of drills and picks, shining with the speckled deposits of silver or other metals that lay within.

I am cautious walking through the mine; being over 6 foot most of the tunnels are lower than I, and if it were not for my hard hat I’m sure several of the bumps I’ve received would have seen me being carried out of the mine – in one form or another.

With only the light of our torches, it is easy to loose sight of those in front of me and I struggled to ensure I do not take a wrong turn. Should I loose the group in the labyrinth of tunnels my only saviour would be to find a worker to guide me out, but with huge areas of the mine un worked I fear how long this would be.

The light also makes it an effort to avoid the occasional holes in the floor. Some are just large enough to swallow a foot, others could easily consume a man; in the dark their depth is impossible to guess- I dare not think of the consequences of a missed step.

Only as we progress deeper into the mine do we get a true feeling for what a hellish place this is. The air begins to get hotter, and breathing becomes difficult, in some places because of the heavy dust but more often from the noxious gases in the air. A dull ache in my throat began shortly after entering, but now this has turned into a sharp pain; with every breath, hot needles find their way into my throat and lungs.

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