Sunday, February 12, 2012

Potosi: A Morning in the Mine

Nick and I decided to go to Potosi instead of straight to Sucre with Lauren and Marianna just to see it.
Many people go there to do the mine tours, which is what Potosi is famous for. It was founded in 1546 as a mining town and for 4 hundred years the people of Potosi have been blasting their way throught Cerro Rico, the mountian next to the city, which has been providing them at first with a looot of silver, and after the 1800s (when the silver ran out), they now export zinc and tin. As the silver diminished so did the wealth of the town and the size of the mountain as it gets blasted every day by over 10,000 miners. Back in the day when the Spanish learned of the silver they used indiginous people of the region to get in there and get it out. It's hard and dangerous work and they died by the thousands.
Then they brought in slaves from Africa to compensate for the loss of indigenous labor. It's estimated that over 8 million 'workers' died in the mines.
Nowadays the mines are owned by the government and a cooperative has been set up so that men can work in the mines and pay some tax to the government on their extractions.
The city itself is one of the highest in the world at 13,420 feet with windy, narrow streets which I found very charming. We were only going to stay one night and leave for sucre the next day since there were buses out pretty much all the time. I wanted to go to the national mint museum and just walk around, I had no desire to do the mine tour (but Nick did) because it sounded dangerous, claustrophobic inducing and maybe a bit exploitative. We were walking around the centro looking for a good map when we wandered into The Real Deal tours. I asked the guy for a map and he gave us a small one and asked what we were up to. Then he started to talk about the only way to know Potosi is to visit the mines. What we hadn't realized was that we had walked into the only mine tour operation that was totally run by ex-miners. They had all worked in the mines from a young age (13!!) and then worked for big tour companies before breaking free and starting their own.
The way he explained it diminished my fears a bit and let me get talked into doing a tour the next morning!

We met at the office at 8:30am and waited for the 4 other people that would be on the tour with us. Our guide would be the guy we talked to last night, named Efraim, who was full of energy. He had learned English by talking with tourists but had never formally studied it. One day as he was working in the mine a tour was coming through and the owner of it heard him talking with one of the tourists and asked him if he wanted to leave the mine and be a tour guide. Which he did, for 11 years with this big company, but he left to start this one after the promises that the big company would build a pharmacy or hospital for the miners never came to fruition. He didnt' like that they didn't give back to the miners. So now they have this company and we were happy to support it. They have a 13 year old boy  working at the office that they saw at the mine. They told him they would employ him to help make money for his family so he wouldn't have to work in the mine, so he works for them in the am and goes to school in the pm now.
First we went to the miners market where we bought gifts for the miners, such as juice, coca leaves and dynamite. Armed with a stick of dynamite in Nick's backpack and some leaves in mine we went to get our galoshes, pants, shirt and helmet with flashlight on it that we needed to enter the mine. Then we made a quick stop at the processing plant where they extracted the minerals from the 'garbage'. It was very primative looking and prob full of toxic stuff. We gave some of our coca leaves as gifts to some of the guys there. Arriving at the entrance of the mine I started to get a little nervous, going into the depths of a mountain. There were many guys milling about getting ready to start their day in the mine. We went to one of entrances and waited while guys pushed carts on tracks full of bags of rocks out of the darkness. Then we entered. The ground was very wet and we had to step to the side for carts to come through or miners to pass by as they ran to their part of the mine.
This is a fully operational mine and really no place for ogling tourists, and really this would NEVER happen in the US or England, but here we a mine. We learned that the miners have a short life, usually getting silicosis because of what they're inhaling in the mine. Average lifespan is around 45 for someone working all their life down there. It's also against the law to have young boys working there but it happens and no one regulates it. They usually have to start working to help support the big families that they tend to be part of,
could be like 7 kids plus parents. Efrain was the first to admit that if they had smaller families the money would be more and the kids wouldn't have to work in the mines so young. Lets hope it catches on...
We went deeper into the mine and had to duck at some points. I hit my head pretty hard on a beam, thanking the fact I had a helmet on but still..ow!!
Different groups of miners have their own section in the mine. A group could be anywhere from 5 to 20 miners and they decided when and how long they will work that day. We visited a couple different groups but the most memorable was when they invited us to go see the mineral vein they were working on and we had to
climb throught a hole using a rope to lower ourselves down. gulp. It turned out to be not as bad as I thought but I went first so as to get it over with and not let myself think about it waiting for others. The space wasn't tight when we got down there so it was ok. The guy showed us some rocks from the mineral vein and then climbed up the wall and started pounding a hole with a long medal rod and a mallet to make a hole for dynamite. It would take him 4 hours to pound this hole and blast time is 6pm every day so it had to be done by then. Nick and I gave this group the coca leaves, juice and dynamite as gifts. We also visited El Tio, the god of the mine. He owns the rocks in it so the miners have made statues of him and give him cigarettes and  alcohol and coca leaves as thanks for what they are taking. They also give thanks to the earth mother, Pacha Mama, dropping coca leaves on the ground and drops of alchohol. At this point we had to drink two shots of 96% alcohol, one for El Tio, and one for Patcha Mama. It buuuuurned!!  We visited one more mining group before heading out into the liiight! The entrance to the mine was totally abandoned at this point since all the guys were inside. We dropped off our stuff back at another guides house and went out to lunch with Efrain and talked more about mine life. It's a tough job, dangerous for the workers and pollutes the river (processing plant) and it all gets exported out of the country.
Such is the way of the world.
I'm really glad we did the tour and glad we did it with the this company. I dont think I'll forget that experience any time soon!
If interested, a documentary was made on it called The Devil's Miner.

At the entrance with one of the guides, Wilson


Efraim with El Tio and the 96% alcohol

Part of the processing plant

inside the mine

a miner spider man style on the wall chiseling a hole for dynamite

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