Its riches seduced empires. Its caverns stole the lives of eight million people… and counting.
The three-hour drive from the colonial capital of Sucre to the cloud-city of Potosi, Bolivia, leads up twisting mountain roads through an increasingly barren and unpopulated land littered with the rusting detritus of old mining operations. Perched at over 4,000 metres, Potosi is the highest city in the world. The air is so thin up here that every step demands a physical effort. It’s not until you arrive and your lungs begin sucking desperately for breath that you know exactly what it means to live at this extremity of the Earth.
Stretching high above the dusty old city is a huge mound of tanned earth, carved sharply from the landscape into a mountainous cone. This is the reason I’ve come to Potosi. It’s the only reason anyone has ever come here – apart from the Indians that once lived here before the Spanish came.
Over the centuries, this mountain has had many names. To the invaders, it was Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill, to the Quechuans, it was Sumag Orko, or Magnificent Hill. These are the names given to a mountain that hid in its core thick veins of silver – natural wealth so plentiful that it inspired the Spanish idiom Vale un Potosi, Worth a Fortune. The mountain holds such prominence in the Bolivian national imagination that it is illustrated at the centre of the country’s national crest.
It was the silver in the Cerro Rico that drew the Spanish to Potosi in the 15th century. And it’s the active mines that remain here today that I’ve come to see, 550 years after Potosi was built into one of the most illustrious cities in the world, and then abandoned. In that time, imperial empires have come and gone, replaced by corporate ones and a trickle of adventure-seeking tourists. But little else has changed. Every day, many of the indigenous still descend into the bowels of the mountain though the ancient shafts are mostly anaemic today except for deposits of ore. The people mine in much the same way as they always did, which is to say in some of the worst, most primitive conditions you can imagine.
According to legend, when the Inca emperor, Huayna Capac, first discovered the riches in the mountain in 1462, a booming voice told the Incas that the silver didn’t belong to them. It was for the white men who would one day come from far away. Believing they had heard the voice of God, the Incas obeyed and declared the mountain sacred place. History hasn’t recorded whether the booming voice, was spoken with a lisping, Castilian accent.
The Spanish heard out about the silver in 1544 and founded the city the next year. From an original workforce of 170 Spanish and 3,000 natives, by 1610, Potosi had grown to some 160,000 inhabitants – the combined populations of London and Paris. These included Old World artisans and engineers following the seductive whiff of riches from a real-life El Dorado. But the bulk of the swelling population were slaves – mostly former citizens of the Inca empire that stretched thousands of miles down the spine of the Andes from Lima to Lake Titicaca. The Spanish also brought African slaves, who fared the worst due to problems adapting to the extreme altitude.
My guide, Helen, knows most of the miners around whom she conducts her tours. Beginning in 1980, the government began transferring ownerships of the mines to workers’ cooperatives. Around 6,000 locals now work the 120 or so mines around the Cerro Rico – about half the workforce from the days of slavery. On our hike up to the mine, Helen discusses a community welfare scheme with one miner and chats with the widow of another.
At the foot of the mountain, Helen leads me and a few other tourists into a small room near the mouth of the mine, inside of which stands a shrine to the mine god Tio or Uncle. The Spanish created Tio in the image of the Christian devil to frighten the miners into labour. A garish dummy embodying this less-than-avuncular deity is surrounded by pinups of blonde models. Here, the workers drip fierce Latin firewater called Puro onto the ground and balance cigarettes in Tio’s mouth, hoping for a profitable day’s work. Bright strips of cloth mark the mineshaft in his honour.
‘This is not a museum’, Helen warns us before we enter the mine. ‘It’s a working mine and its conditions are the same as when it opened 500 years ago.’
The shaft we enter is horizontal, sometimes dipping into claustrophobic holes through which the miners, their cheeks swollen with wads of narcotic cocoa leaves, shift the largely worthless ore by hand. ‘They fill up wheelbarrows or carts and push them out of the entrance. Around 80 wheelbarrows a day on average for a 12-hour shift, or 350 bags of ore,’ says Helen. ‘If it’s a good day they make around $5.’ The miners sell their ore to refineries that ship it unprocessed overseas.
The dank interior of the mine has been hacked out by hand. Low humid corridors run off unexpectedly in hopeful new directions, their rickety, fragile progress extending crookedly for hundreds of metres. To get through the mine, tunnelers are often forced to scramble and splash about on their hands and knees in the mud. Often, the deep, shrinking shafts frighten off the more claustrophobic tourists.
‘Can you smell that?’ Helen asks. ‘It’s the smell of very old air, trapped inside until released by some new digging. It’s these poisonous gases that kill the most, usually arsenic or sulfuric acid.’
Oxygen masks are an unknown luxury. Around 20 miners die working here each year. Many more suffer from respiratory illnesses such as silicosis. Most miners don’t make it to 40. The local hospital overflows with victims of what is locally called, mine disease. Often pensions can’t be collected until the disease has developed so far that the victim can’t enjoy his retirement for long. About 1,000 children under 12-years-old also work here.
Over 300 years, the mines yielded 70,000 tons of silver, enough to pay for centuries of imperial projects, including the Spanish Armada. The English sailor, Francis Drake, plundered enough silver from the Spanish galleons to significantly underpin England’s growing wealth. The silver’s injection into the European economy stimulated trade as far away as India. Bolivian schoolchildren are told the mine held enough silver to build a bridge to Spain. They are also told that a second bridge could have been built back with the bones of those who died mining it.
From 1545–1825 about eight million people died working in these mines. That’s about the size of the current Bolivian population. The average working lifespan was six months, and it was said that for every peso coin forged, ten slaves died. Many never began their second shifts after living underground for months in temperatures topping 100 degrees. Cerro Rico is less a mountain than a mass grave.
After shuffling along for 100 metres or so, we find some workers chipping away at an unpromising piece of wall. Their shabby clothes are coated in a thick layer of dust – their expressions ambivalent towards tourists who try to soften their intrusiveness with gifts of water, dynamite and chocolate. The miners use pick-axes and lamps instead of drills and torches, as you would see in a modern mining operation. Running along the roof ahead is a thin streak of tin that, along with zinc, is now the miners’ main source of income. Mining it, we are told, could very well bring down the unsupported roof.
After the Spanish extracted 820 million silver coins, most of the mountain’s richest deposits were exhausted. But in 1572, the Spanish Viceroy, Francisco Toledo, introduced mercury into the extraction process, and the digging continued. Over the next three centuries, several hundred tons of this poisonous metal were dumped into the Potosi basin. The deadly drain-off now swills alongside the lead, cadmium, and arsenic of later deposits. The mined ores become acidic when combined with water and pollute the local water supply. The laws needed to clean up this hazard are neither tough enough nor effectively enforced.
Modern technology hasn’t touched the miners’ lives, but it has found 154 tonnes of untouched silver in the Cerro Rico – the world’s largest existing deposit. By 2007, a clutch of foreign companies is expected to overwhelmingly oppose the idea of letting foreigners profit further from the few remaining riches of the continent’s poorest country. That the mountain’s famous crown might be lopped off to more easily remove the new deposits, as has been proposed, doesn’t go well with the locals either. The Bolivian national crest would look less impressive adorned with only half a hill.
Their fears are, perhaps, best illustrated by the story I heard in the Casa de Moneda, the museum built inside the thick stone walls of the old, Spanish mint. It concerns a Florida-based salvage company that found the wreck of a treasure-laden Spanish galleon in the 1980s. Around 175,000 coins were recovered, valued at around $300 million. From the horde, a single coin, now sitting in the Potosi museum, was given to the Bolivian nation. Overlooking the museum courtyard hangs the mask of a white human face wearing a smirking smile. It looks set to leer greedily into the foreseeable future.
Internationalist Winter 2006