For US$9 a day, workers toil in the bowels of a mine that once funded an empire.
When the Spanish came to Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) in the 16th century, they hoped to find gold. But the cone-shaped mountain looming over the city of Potosi and now riddled with makeshift tunnels and unstable shaft systems produced silver.
“You could build a silver bridge from the mountain to Madrid from what was mined here,” said Freddy Suarez, a guide who takes visitors to see Cerro Rico.
“For 20 years I worked in the mine after starting at 10. My father was a miner here too. There is still as much silver in there as has been taken out, but it is getting harder to get to and more dangerous. Tunnel collapses are common and the dangers our ancestors faced are still present.”
A century after the Spanish arrived, Potosi was one of the biggest cities in Latin America and the wealthiest in the world. The busy extraction of silver and other minerals also made it the largest site of physical exploitation in the world, right through the 17th century.
“Vale un Potosi” (It is worth a Potosi) became a commonly used expression to describe vast wealth, after Quixote blurted it out in Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
But the apparent wealth of Potosi, the highest city in the world at 4,090 metres, overlooked the human sacrifice that made it possible.
Countless natives were taken into forced servitude to toil in the mines alongside African and Indian slaves, working in squalid and extremely dangerous conditions. While records of fatalities were not kept, historians and geologists estimate that about eight million perished in Potosi during the Spanish colonial period, from 1546 to 1825.
“Miners believe that their ghosts are still in the mines,” Mr Suarez said, adding that Cerro Rico’s nickname – The Mountain That Eats Men – is still used today.
After coming out of Potosi’s cobbled, narrow streets, the road up to the mine is dotted with stalls selling cigarettes, dynamite, ammonia and soft drinks to tourists, all meant to be given as presents to the miners.
Small treats, perhaps, given the lives these men lead.
Working conditions in the mine are primitive: the air is unbearably hot and stuffy due to a lack of ventilation and is thick with dust generated from the blasting of rocks. The tunnels are poorly lit and narrow, restricting the workers’ movement. The only signs of modernity are the pneumatic drills that have replaced pick axes.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
3 posts so far.