A visit inside the mines ...
14.11.2007 25 °C
According to my Lonely Planet, POTOSI SHOCKS!
It is the world's highest city (4060m)- Yes, we keep on going higher and higher! and is set against the backdrop of a rainbow coloured mountain, the CERRO RICO.
"The city was founded in 1545 following the discovery of ore deposits in the mountain, and Potosi veins proved the world's most lucrative. By the end of the 18th centruy the streets were "paved" with silver (not true anymore!), it grew into the LARGEST AND WEALTHIEST CITY IN LATIN AMERICA" (looks really poor these days!!!)...
"Millions of indigenous people and imported African slaves were conscripted to work in the mines in appalling conditions, and millions of deaths occurred. TODAY THOUSANDS CONTINUE TO WORK IN THE MINES (under the same medieval appalling conditions!!!) EVEN THOUGH THE SILVER HAS BEEN DEPLETED" (to extract minerals- zinc, lead, tin...)!!!
While in Sucre, Brel and I had the chance to watch a fabulous (and heart wrenching) multi award-wining documentary, THE DEVIL'S MINERS (2005), which follows a 14 year old miner in the mines of Potosi. Hard to believe first of all, that there are kids working in that "hell". There are actually over 800 of them and the conditions are absolutely horrible. This boy started working in the mine when he was 10 because his father died and he needed to earn some money, somehow, to help his mother. He eventually brings his 12 year old brother in with him to help...
Some things we learned from the documentary-
-The Cerro Rico is also known as THE MOUNTAIN WHO EATS MEN ALIVE because sooo many men and children have died in the mines (and are still dying in the mines)
- Miners, exposed to so many notious chemicals, often die of silicosis pneumonia within 10 years of entering the mines (so do the maths, if a boy enters at age 10...). They know they are sacrificing their life for this...and for what?...just enough for bread and potatoes!!!
- They only get paid IF and when they find good minerals
- They can work 12-18 hours at the time in there!!!
- If a miner dies, his eldest son takes over ...
- All the work is still done manually (just like in colonial times!!!). They can rent an electric drill for $10 (for 2 hours) but it is impossible for them to pay this amount!!!
- The miner must buy his own equipment but nothing is compulsory so if he is poor (and they all are here!!!) he goes in with no equipment and no protection...
- Most of the minerals found in Potosi are sold to Chile (for peanuts) and Chile exports it all over the world for A LOT MORE $... no wonder Bolivia is the poorest country in South America!!!
Anyways, Brel and I decided to do the MINE TOUR to see for ourselves. And just like I had read, the tour was demanding, shocking and unforgettable!!! We had to crawl through narrow tunnels full of dust, weird smells and huge cables and climb down a rickety ladder... (Unlike the miners we all had masks, helmets, water proof pants, jackets and boots, head lights and gloves...)
We started at the Miner's market where we were told to buy gifts for the miners that we would meet along the way- coca leaves (the most essential part of their diet. Chewing this all day long gives them strength, aleviates their hunger...), cigarettes (which they give as offering to their "god" down there), drinks and explosives. Yes, Brel was determined to see an explosion so he bought dynamite!!! (Apparently the only place you can by it legally!!!)
We also bought masks for us (we did not see one single miner down there wearing a mask and not one single tourist not wearing one!!!) and gloves for Brel (which he was to donate during the tour).
Driving to the mine ...
REAL miners along the way (so many young ones!!!)
Then we drove to their church on top of CERRO RICO
in front of which we saw a demonstration blast (not my cup of tea... Brel was all ready to film it but flinched at the blast and just got the smoke on film ...)
Our group, the FAKE miners-
Mother and son all set-
Brel is psyched and all set in his special outfit (He is so lucky to do this NOT FOR REAL!!!- he knows!!! He cried so much during and after the documentary). The hole you see is our entrance!!!
Finally we crawled in (for more than 3 km) and watched miners in action in intercommunicated mines (we descended 7 levels from 20 to 30 m until we reached the heart of the mountain).
This is what a VEIN looks like-
Brel found some Zinc-
And then their GOD-Devil, THE "TIO" who the Spanish initially invented to scare them and get them to work harder but who they now strongly believe in as their protector and provider of good quality minerals. Every friday they sit with him and offer coca leaves and cigarettes... There is one in every single mine!!! They strongly believe that HE holds their future in the mine in his hands... They even make llama offerings to him, splash the llama blood all over the entrance of the mine and then paint their faces with the remaining blood... OFFERINGS AND RITUAL ARE ALWAYS PRESENT HERE!!!
Here's the TIO-
and closer so that you can see him smoking (as you can see smoking is a sacred act here (remember the ñatitas?)-
Brel inside the mine-
The real ones at work... no masks, no gloves...just a cheek full of coca leaves. And you should have seen how black our masks were after a 2 hour visit in there...
The town of Potosi from the CERRO RICO