A morning in the Cerro Rico..
07.06.2008 - 07.06.2008 25 °C
Darkness enveloped me as I stepped across the threshold. The air was dusty, dank and cold. Almost without warning, the tunnel narrowed and I began to feel claustrophobic. By this point, I felt that I had come too far to turn back.
I was crawling through one of the thousands of mine-shafts dug in the Cerro Rico (´rich mountain´), close to the city of Potosi. For over two hundred years, these mines were the the beating heart of the Spanish Empire, pumping tens of thousands of tonnes of silver to all of Spain´s most distant colonies. For the Spaniards, the mountain was a source of wealth beyond their wildest dreams - even to this day, there remains a phrase in Spanish valer un Potosi, which literally means ´to be worth a fortune´.
Suffice to say, these riches did not come without a human cost. It is widely accepted by historians that around 8 million indigenous people died (or, more accurately, were worked to death) in the Cerro Rico during the Spanish rule. Eventually, the local workforce became so depleted that the Spanish were forced to import African slaves to work in the mines. These men, completely unaccustomed to the bitter cold and the altitude (4200m), were also destined to die in their thousands in pursuit of Spanish glory.
These days, the mines are run somewhat more humanely. Groups of miners (there are between 5 and 10 thousand in total) rent segments of the mountain from the Bolivian government and are then free to exploit the rapidly diminishing mineral wealth as they will. With the exception of this alteration in administration, there have been very few changes in the Cerro Rico since the Spanish era.
Even in the 21st century, the lives of the mineros are nasty, brutish and short. On average, a miner begins work aged 12. Each day, he will spend between 12 and 24 hours working underground, using only basic tools and dynamite. Most contract silicosis (a disease of the lungs, caused by poisonous dust in the rock) within 10 years. Many go on to die by the age of 30, almost all by 40. While wandering, I bumped into a cheerful 54 year-old, named Bruno, who claimed to have been mining for over 36 years. As we walked away, our guide, himself an ex-miner, explained that Robert had all the symptoms of advanced silicosis and would probably be dead within 6 months.
For me, the most tragic aspect of the Cerro Rico is the fact that there is virtually no hope of escape. Families work in the same co-operatives for generations; as each father dies aged 35 or 40, so his son is obliged to take up the family business in order to provide for his female relatives. Some of the more progressive co-operatives encourage their child-labourers to go to school, but our guide explained that these children often struggle to save enough money to pay for their education. The lucky few that manage it are usually ostracized by their classmates. Along the way, I met Braulio, a 15 year-old (whose aspiration was to go to university). I asked him whether he thought that he would be able to save enough to leave the mines - he responded with a characteristically Latin American shrug and a cheeky grin.
There are 22 levels in the Cerro Rico - as one descends, the mineral veins become richer and the life expectancies shorter. I met Braulio on the 3rd level (we only descended as far as the 4th) and he explained that, as a miner, he faced a choice between money for his family or his own life. In order to realise his dream, Braulio was going to try and seek work in one of the larger (and deeper) mines, fully aware of the potential cost. To quote him directly:
"Yo voy a sacrificar mi vida para mi familia. Pero yo soy minero, y soy orgulloso".
(I am going to sacrifice my life for my family. But I am a miner and I am proud).
The final, and most puzzling, aspect of the miners´ lives is their religion. On the surface, they are practising Catholics, no different to the vast majority of Bolivians. However, inside the mines, they believe in something altogether more sinister - Tio, the Devil. Our guide explained that this belief was introduced by the Spanish, in order to ´motivate´ the natives into working harder and longer. In fact, the word Tio is a Quechua corruption of the Spanish word Dios, meaning God. Each of the 500 or so different co-operatives in the Cerro Rico has its own statue of Tio; the one I was taken to was made of clay and about 6 feet tall. It was adorned with a massive penis (said to represent the mine´s ´fertility´) and covered in offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol. Our guide explained that the miners believe that the Cerro Rico is the Devil´s domain - the temperature in the lower levels fluctuates between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius, making it truly Infernal - and that God has no power inside. In order to satisfy the Devil´s many wants, the miners sacrifice llamas and make regular offerings to their idols. Even so, whenever a death occurs, it is blamed on the Devil and such is their fear of Tio that most miners won´t even look their mine´s idol in the eye. As we squeezed through a mine-shaft and re-emerged into the daylight, our guide, Raul, told me that he personally believed that, if displeased, Tio would rise up from the ground and eat his soul.
Whether or not Tio really does exist, I think that it´s fair to say that the Cerro Rico truly is the Devil´s mine.