South America | Bolivia – Cerro Rico
It was the most dominant feature upon arrival in the city. I could see it well yet there was no way to really understand it, or the stories I had heard. In almost every corner I looked there were traces of one of the most contrasting histories that has ever been. Here opulence and misery have existed side by side for almost 500 years, both sides fully pronounced and dependent on each other from the beginning.
I walked the quiet morning streets and tried again to understand. Brilliant cathedrals and begging children, a common contrast throughout South America but nowhere is it so well defined as in Potosi. And above me it loomed, innocent, but still the scene of the crime. I reached the small market and turned my thoughts to breakfast.
The market was just waking up with the same hustle and bustle to be found in any workplace across the globe. Stands were being filled with products, busses were hurrying to and fro and weary faces were
still shaking the sleep out of their daily rythm. I tried to do the same and sat down at one of the stalls and had a warm bowl of soup. A hard days work stood ahead of me and at that point I could still barely even fathom it. I bought a bag of coca leaves and a stick of dynamite and boarded a bus with the others.
I was already out of breath when I arrived at the small adobe hut that served as a storage shed for equipment and work clothes as well as a home for a family of eight. I sat down on a stone and looked down at where I had been dropped off. The busses kept coming, soon the mountain would be filled with life, as well as an unavoidable death. Not necccasarily today but it must always be there, lurking, and waiting. It takes time, but not much.
I pulled out the bag of coca leaves and, like my colleagues, started to chew the leaves and fill my cheek with the remains. It took about an hour until the slow process of pulling the stems from the dried leaves and chewing resulted in a bulging cheek and a mouthfull of slightly bitter juice. Swallowing this juice was what made the miner’s life-long providence, at least somewhat, bearable. I was just hoping that it would help get me through the day.
Somtime around 1544 the spanish learned of a mountain that was reputed to be full of silver. The Incas had called it “Suraj Orcko”, beautiful hill, but the spanish were quick to rename it “Cerro Rico” or rich hill. And rich it was, the mountain’s vast silver deposits were to yield more than half of the worlds production for the following 200 years.
The city of Potosi quickly sprang up around the base of the mountain and by 1573, in just 28 years, it’s population had reached 120,000, equally as large as London at the time and surpassing the population of Madrid, Rome or Paris. One of the darkest chapters of colonial history had begun and before it came to an end in 1825 the indigenous Andean population had been reduced by an estimated 80%.
Within a short time slaves were imported from Africa to work the mines alongside the native Quechua Indians. It is said that for every 10 men that entered the mine 7 never returned. Accounts vary but a widely quoted source claims that within 300 years of colonial rule more than 8 million slaves perished in the hellish conditions inside the mountain. Whatever the true number might be it is clear that the “beautiful hill” of the Incas became a massive grave that even now claims hundreds of lives per year.
Though there is no real high involved with the chewing of coca leaves, it enables the miners to work at oxygen-poor altitudes exceeding 4200 meters without getting hungry or thirsty. The miners believe that without chewing the leaf “Pachamama” (Mother Earth) will pull at your body making you weak and slow. Considering that even with the leaf I felt weak and slow I was not willing to argue the point. With the morning coca ritual now completed we entered the 300 year old mine aptly named “Grito de Piedra”, scream of the stone.
I followed behind Davido and Joseph, my colleagues for the day, through the damp and dark tunnels. A fur of asbestos hung from the ceiling at the entrance and throughout the mines viscous fluids seeped through the walls. Arsenic and sulphuric acid are among the many hazardous substances that the miners come into daily contact with. Their average lifespan lying at 42 years, most of the men succumb to silicosis of the lungs within 10 to 15 years of entering the mine.
We climbed through a series of vertical tunnels and across a feeble bridge made of wood. Gaping holes fell away from the sides of the tunnels to dark depths unknown. Bent over to the point where all I could see were my shoes I scraped the low ceiling covering myself with a clay-like mud within the first minutes.
Lighting my way I had a small lantern that had been filled with small stones of calcium carbonate and water. After lighting the resulting gas I had a small flame that would burn for about 8 hours. Aside from the light this small flame served as a way to determine if a pocket of deadly gas was encountered. If the flame went out then it was time to leave, and that in a hurry.
We reached the narrow, inclined shaft that Davido and Joseph had been working in for the past weeks. We were at the highest point in the mine and the sounds of other miners had long since faded in the cool mountain stone. Davido and Joseph climbed to the top of the forked shaft and set about their days work. Armed with nothing more than a hammer and chisels of various lengths they set about driving holes in the igneous rock that they would later fill with dynamite, ammonium nitrate, and the fine dust that they were now to chisel out of the holes.
Armed with a pick and a shovel, my job was to drag the debris from the previous day’s explosion down to the horizontal shaft below. Once I had pulled an ammount down I then descended to the pile to sort through the stones, tossing aside any that didn’t appear to glitter in the faint light of my lamp. Once the useless stones had been sorted I shoveled the debris back up towards the inclined shaft in order to make a loose ramp.
While the air at 4300 meters is already considerably lacking in oxygen, the air inside the mine was even worse. The sweat flowed and I gasped for air with each throw of the shovel. Randomly throughout the day the dulled explosions from other shafts could be heard. At times I fought with bouts of claustrophobia, feeling the bulk of the mountain around me. I was imprisoned but these men return everyday for a taste of the same, my only comfort was that I would not be returning. Though I worked as hard as I could I knew that the miners could have accomplished the task in half the time.
Once I had repeated this process three times the shaft was relatively clean and the ramp was functional. I climbed up to help Joseph with his holes. By this point my back was sore and I was seriously fatigued though I tried not to show it. Joseph showed me how to hold the meter long chisel and to give it a half a turn after every blow of the hammer. The holes needed to be about 70 centimeters long and the day’s toils were only to result in 6 of them between 3 men. Swinging the hammer against the immovable chisel I thought about how quickly and painlessly an air hammer could do the job.
Unfortunately the traces that were left to be found were so poor that it was not cost efficient to use anything but sweat and muscle. Though the men were, technically, no longer slaves, little had changed from the times that their direct ancestors had first entered the mines under the whips of the Spanish.
Once the holes were finished it was time to make the explosives and pack them into the holes. The dynamite was cut into pieces and the ammonia nitrate was packed into cylyndrical tubes made of a single sheet of newspaper. This process seemed to take an eternity and I could only think about leaving the mountain and breathing fresh air. I had to think about the African and Indian slaves that had been brought here to die for the Spaniard’s insatiable thirst for wealth. For the first time in my life I thought that I would have rather taken my own life before climbing into that mountain day in and day out. The mountain IS hell, in the past as well as today.
When the explosives were packed into the holes the tools were gathered and set in a small alcove for use the following day. Using the flame from the lantern the fuses were lit and we hurried down the slippery passageways, down the slimy ladders and across the rotting bridge. We stopped about three levels below and waited. The first two explosions were dull but the third made me jump, the air surged through the tunnel and there was the sound of water above. I looked at Joseph and muttered something about “agua”, he shook his head and turned his ear again to the tunnels above. I had a vision of the explosion releasing a trapped cavity of water that would soon be rushing down to drown us. The fourth explosion; more water, the fifth, and finally the sixth, we waited another minute and then they signalled that we could continue our descent. For me it was an escape.
Stepping out into the light of day my eyes burned and my lungs rejoiced. I was completely exhausted and sore. Joseph asked if I would be back tomorrow. I was ashamed and yet grateful to be able to say that I wouldn’t. What I had just briefly experienced is an unending process that goes on until the men can no longer breathe and are forced to live out the last of their days, coughing blood under the mountain that had killed them.
It has now been three days since my day in the mine. I have walked the town and seen the remnants of the colonial era. Beautiful cathedrals and churches, extravagant homes, and the colonial mint where the silver was turned into the Spanish currency. I have also seen broken streets, children selling chocolate that they will never taste, miners widows waiting for handouts in front of the churches and other cold realities of the post-colonial era.
I wandered through the outskirts of town where earthen streets are strewn with litter amongst houses with no windows and faces without dreams. All along, visible from any point in the city, the mountain, now reduced to a pile of discarded rubble, stands overhead. Once a symbol of wealth and power and now just a gravestone for countless souls who have fallen victim to man’s insatiable greed.