Potosí: There is no three-headed dog but the blood splattered entrance is unmistakable. Like the millions who have gone before me, I take a last look at the sun and then enter the underworld.
It is here that most of the climate change refugees from the region’s villages, end up – making a pact with the devil that few will survive. I’ve come to see what happens to these people once drought forces them from their country homes, and it’s not pretty.
At over 4000 metres, Potosí is the world’s highest city but it is overshadowed by the rainbow-coloured Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), which looms above the citizens – an imposing reminder of the cause of the city’s splendour and horror. The city was founded in 1545 following the discovery of silver in the Cerro Rico, the veins of which proved to be the world’s most lucrative, bankrolling the Spanish Empire for more than two centuries.
The extraordinary quantities of this precious metal – it is said that at one time you could have built a silver bridge from here to Spain and still have enough silver to carry across it – led to the city of Potosí becoming the richest and biggest in the Western world, with more than 200,000 inhabitants in the 17th century. The city had its own mint, whose mark – the letters PTSI superimposed on each other – is thought to be from where the dollar $ sign originates. In all, nearly 70,000 tonnes of silver were shipped from this hill during the colonial times.
It came at a terrible price: 8 million people died working in the industry during the 350 years of Spanish occupation. The first to be ‘used up’ were the indigenous slaves, who expired in such numbers that the Spanish had to import tens of thousands of African slaves and, in 1572, invoked a military law requiring all slaves to work 12-hour shifts, remaining underground for 4 months at a time. Average life expectancy of a miner was just 6 months.
By the 1800s, the silver was depleted and its global price diminished, sending the city into a decline that it is only recently recovering from, thanks to the demand for tin, lead and zinc.
But Cerro Rico still draws silver miners as only the devil can. They get a worse deal than Faust, exchanging not just their souls but their bodies too. Miners here die within 10 years of entering the mine; on average, before the age of 35. They die from silicosis, mesothelioma, accidents and poisonings from the various noxious chemicals they are exposed to including, cyanide, mercury and carbon monoxide.
For their efforts, those working in the sought-after cooperatives can earn an average of 1500 Bolivianos a week (£150/$225); those working alone usually earn a great deal less. It all depends on the quantity and quality of the minerals they produce. At the moment, silver is selling at US$18 per ounce, but once the intermediaries have been paid, the miner gets a far smaller percentage of this. If a miner manages to join a cooperative (he must pay $7000 for the privilege), then 16% of his earnings (evenly shared by all members) goes into the cooperative. After tax, this money is used to ensure that miners have a pension and healthcare when they inevitably get silicosis or suffer an accident, that their widows get a stipend and to pay for things like ventilation in the stifling (45 degrees) deeper sections of the mine.
Juan Mamani Choque worked the mines for three years, carrying 50kg sacks of rock from the deep (60-metres-below) drilling depths to the next level up (25-metres-below) where the trolleys could move it. Juan weighed just 45 kg himself at the time, working in the same way as his father, dead from silicosis, had. At the age of 25, Juan slipped and fell down a shaft, injuring his back. During the six months he spent recuperating, his wife talked him out of returning to the mines, and he went back to school, eventually graduating from university in languages.
Before we visit the mine, Juan says, we should bring gifts for the miners. We go to the miners’ market, buy orangeade, some coca leaves plus alkali catalyst and, for $2, a terrorist’s dream: a stick of nitroglycerine, a stick of ammonium nitrate and a fuse long enough for a four-minute escape. “Argentinian dynamite is the best, but there’s some problem with the factory, so get the Bolivian – the Peruvian is for children,” Juan instructs. I decline to buy the 96% proof alcohol drink that is visibly distilling itself in the container.
We take a bus up to the mine. There is a small cluster of low, unheated stone hovels clinging to the mountain sides and between them is the low dark entrance, stained black with llama blood, remnant of a sacrifice to the devil made a couple weeks ago. Miners are extremely superstitious creatures, the reality of their predicament sending them searching desperately for hope of supernatural help. In the sunny outside, they are fervent catholics; once in the underworld, it is the Tio (devil) who holds them in his hands. The name ‘Tio’, which usually means ‘uncle’ in Spanish, derives from the Spanish overlords who threatened the miners with an all-seeing Dios (god), should they slacken. There is no ‘D’ in Quechua, so his name became corrupted to Tio.
Many roads lead to hell, and we enter through the Candelaria Bajo mine, one of the oldest of the 700 mines in Cerro Rico, dating back at least 350 years. It is immediately dark and dusty, the air infused with a peculiar smell – a caustic combination of the many chemicals here.
I stumble along behind Juan, crouching under the low rocks, trying to forget that 10 years ago geologists predicted that the mountain, riddled with tunnels and crevices, will collapse within 8-10 years. I bash my head frequently, alternatively grateful for my hard hat and cursing it for falling down over my eyes and obscuring my view of obstacles.
Suddenly Juan shouts for me to get to the side, off the tracks. We struggle to mount a rock, just in time as a series of steel trollies come speeding down the tracks towards us, pushed and pulled by ghostly men, wide-eyed from coca.
We continue on in our nightmare journey, heading deeper and further into the mine. The air becomes impossible to breathe even through my scarf, and it becomes harder to see with every step. Soon we are reduced to crawling on hands and knees through tunnels tight enough to panic in, and still we descend.
Sliding down a rabbit hole – although no rabbit would live this far down – we reach a lower level, where demonic workers with mad staring eyes push and pull trollies laden with 2 tonnes of rock past us, seemingly not noticing our presence. We are a couple of kilometres inside the mountain now and it is stiflingly hot, lung-searingly difficult to breathe and incredibly exhausting – and we are not even working.
Further along still, we descend through a passage so tight that I must slide on my belly, and reach two men shovelling rocks onto trollies unstoppingly. I offer them the orangeade and, after two more trollies have delivered their loads, one pauses for a few minutes to talk to me.
Damaso Condori is 40 years old and new to the mine. he’s been here just 5 years, driven from his country village by worsening droughts to seek his fortune in the back-breaking hell of Cerro Rico. He started to cough (the first sign of silicosis) a few months ago and he is worried for his family back in the village, he says. But for now he must keep working here because there is no other way to pay for his five children’s education.
At 4200 metres above sea level, in temperatures above 40 degrees, Damaso and his colleague are each shifting 40 tonnes of rock in a (short) 8-hour shift. The air is so thin and the dust so thick that I have a pounding headache and streaming eyes simply from standing here.
Damaso returns to his shovelling as another quartet of men arrive with their trolly-load, and we turn to head back up. It’s a long and painful journey, hauling ourselves up the vertical shafts we came down, and I am humbled, remembering that Juan did this same journey many times a day carrying 50 kilos on his back. What if your son said he was going to work in the mines, I ask him. “I would put dynamite up his arse,” Juan says. “No way.”
On the way up, we detour through another indescribably awful passage (which I think is also used as a toilet) to visit the Tio – every mine has its own Tio. We find the ghoulish figure sitting with hideous features and an unfeasibly large penis, surrounded by what first appears to be a pile of junk. I soon realise that the cigarettes, coca leaves, bottles of whiskey and rum, food and, most bizarrely, soft-porn playing cards, are all gifts for Tio. The miners come here regularly and appease him with these gifts, hoping he’ll be distracted long enough not to kill them with an accident.
After what feels like an entire day, but is in fact just an hour and a half, we emerge, blinking into the sunlight. I gasp in the cold fresh air, grateful to be alive, to have cheated Tio. The dusty air has taken my voice, I will have to shower for 20 minutes to clean off the grime and my clothes stink of the underworld, but for me, it was a brief foray. I simply cannot imagine having to work in those conditions for 12-14 hours, sometimes doing a double, night-shift, and for years. Children work in these mines from the age of 9 or 10. There are no middle-aged men, only widows shovelling rocks outside.
After lunch – another pleasure denied the miners, who chew coca leaves all day instead – I head to the Caja National de Salud, a hospital for miners. An incredibly pitiful sight awaits: men in their 30s, looking ancient, lie listlessly in beds with drips in their arms and enormous oxygen tanks behind them. This is the fallout of our love of silver, the result of climate change forcing villagers from their farms into the mines, the result of government policy that allows people to work and live in such conditions.
Simon Arcibia, bed 5, was born in Potosí and worked in the mines from the age of 17. He’s been in the clinic, which is paid for by his cooperative, for a month with silicosis and he tells me that he’s getting better. Really, I say, delighted. “Yes, usually people die, but I won’t. I’ll be okay. I have a son, you see.”
Does your son work in the mine? “No he’s studying. I want him to be a doctor. It’s expensive, but the whole cooperative is clubbing together, and I am working more shifts.”
We chat a while and then, as I turn to leave, he says: “I think the government should close the mines. They killed my father and now they are killing me.”
Here are some images from the refinery: