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Underneath the ‘City of Silver’


After about an hour underground we come to the working face of the mine. In a small area to the side of a tunnel, piles of dirt and ore lay on the ground while three men work to shovel the minerals into rubber baskets. These flimsy baskets, once full, are hoisted to the level above with a basic pulley system; the only evidence of which we could see was a wire hook that slowly lowered, then once attached to the buckets, was lifted again. The bags of ore were hosted directly above our heads and I wondered how often the bags broke, the hook slipped or cable broke – none of which looked very secure- but the miners continued to work apparently unconcerned about the huge weight dangling precariously above. I found myself trying to back into the solid wall behind me every time a bag rises into the air and sways in the open space.
The air gets hotter as we walk on and my lungs burn as the acrid, noxious air mixes with the dust, yet it is here that most people work. Some wear a dirty cloth over their nose mouths to help filter the dust, a few wear proper masks, but only a few. With temperatures reaching 40oC it is often too hot to wear any face protection so miners are fully exposed to the cocktail of dust and poisonous air. ‘They also make it difficult to smoke’ Eusabio seems to joke, but hand rolled cigarettes droop from the mouths of several workers.

All the miners boast a large bulge on one cheek, containing a wad of coca leaves, which they constantly chew. The leaves help them withstand the harsh conditions, made no easier by the high altitude, and ease them through the day without a break for food. The extended cheek, from cocas constant use, is a trademark of the high altitude miners.

All around us bodies shovel ore, while men, forced into a narrow shafts, held only by a few six-inch thick logs hack at the walls with small manual tool. Others push carts down the various tracks, quickly disappearing into the darkness of constant noise and vibration of drilling in hidden shafts.

A light shines into a small opening in the floor of the tunnel we are standing and I peer inside. I can just make out a body holding a pneumatic drill among the dust, three others are apparently down there, doing the same. The noise or air powered drills echoing in the small space is painful, the constant vibration shifted small pebbled and dirt among the wooden supports of the ceiling and I watched transfixed as large rocks at my feet seemed to subtly rearrange themselves every time the drill met rock, yet none fell. The fine line between staying safe, and a disaster – of cave in and collapse – seems to hang on a knife-edge.

As we walk deeper in to the mine and pass more people at work I find myself feeling increasing uncomfortable. We often have to stand aside as an ore cart runs down the tracks- with just inches of room between the heavy cart and the tunnel walls. In other places, we have to interrupt shovelling and digging to pass down a particular tunnel, climb under, or over, steel cart tracks as they are manoeuvred into place. Our gifts are little compensation for the inconvenience we cause.

Leaning on a nearby rock is a young man who offers me his hand and gives a warm smile as he welcomes me to ‘my life’. Jose is 19 and has been working in the mine for almost three years. His jovial attitude seems at odds to the terrible conditions he works in. ‘He has just joined the cooperative and hopes to find a good seam’ Eusabio explains, then quietly adds, in English, ‘many think this, then after a while they realise few are that lucky’.

Many miners are members of a cooperative; set up after the Bolivian government introduced incentives for mining in 1987- two years before this the mine all but closed down because of a low productivity. There are now about 50 cooperatives on the hillside, the members sharing in the profits from what they dig. Each miner is assigned a face to work and luck plays a major part. The average working day is around eight hours – modest hours for South American standards – but these can stretch into double or more, depending on the success to the miners. ‘If a miner has a poor face, then he can work all day, all night, and make no money’ Eusabio tells us ‘however, the next day it might get lucky- he may even employ others to help him work a good face’. The average daily wage for a cooperative member is about $4-6 a day- the ore usually being sold to one of the several processing plants in the city. Members often work alone, bringing in outside help if they need assistance with a rich dig and casual labourers make up about 70% of the mines work force.

We offer Jose the dynamite we have and he examines it carefully, measuring the length of fuse against his arm ‘One meter. Good, thank you’ and again he shakes us warmly by the hand as we leave. He picks up his tools and heads into a narrow tunnel to continue work.

As he disappears into the darkness I’m struck by the though that by the time Jose is my age his working life will most likely be over; if he is lucky he may reach his 30s. He is a cheerful and bright young man and I hope this will help him find a job outside the mines. The chances are slim however, and his leaving would only see another take his place.

Cero Rico is Potosi’s largest employer and people come from all over Bolivia, not to seek their fortune, but just to receive a small wage, regardless of the dangers. 

Ultimately, their work prevents the demise of Cero Rico. Stained with the blood of eight million people over it’s five hundred year history, it’s a place of suffering for most, riches for very few. A terrible place that the city can’t afford to loose, no matter the cost.

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