Silver mining and a little devil worship

The mines of Cerro Rico are still in operation. We took a tour to take a look.

The mines are dark, dirty, smelly, cramped and dangerous. Our tour was much more physically demanding than we were expecting. We found ourselves constantly ducking, abseiling down and climbing up steep tunnels that stretched many metres into the earth.

Fiona begins an abseiling descent further into the mine.
Fiona begins an abseiling descent further into the mine.

Of course if we found our tour tough, we’ve got nothing on the miners who toil in this challenging environment. Some guidebooks warn of a feeling of voyeurism when touring the mines. But in our experience the miners were pleased to see us and tell us about their work and lives, and they were certainly grateful for the gifts we’d bought them at the miners’ market: dynamite, coca leaves to chew and ridiculously sugary soft drink.

The cooperatives in the mines

We’ve heard estimates of between eleven and fifteen thousand working in the Cerro Rico mines. A minority work for companies who pay them a steady salary and may offer benefits like health and pension. The vast majority work for one of thirty nine cooperatives each allocated permits to mine different parts of the mountain by the government.

Miner pay within the cooperative depends on the quality and quantity of mineral that their team extracts. It can vary from about $85NZD to $1700NZD a month. For reference the Bolivian minimum wage is about $250NZD a month.Cooperative miners have a different sense of risk and reward than we do; most are hoping to win the mining lottery. But then again we’re not the kind to choose mining as a career in the first place. They do also have the chance to choose their colleagues and their hours. All of the miners we spoke to were eking a decent living by working relatively short hours – maybe four to five a day, and maybe only four days a week.

Some miners choose to work in small groups, or even alone, going for high quality veins of silver by hand. Others work in larger groups, clearing larger areas with dynamite and transporting the rubble to the surface in the hope it will yield silver, tin, lead and zinc. All the miners fuel their work with a cheek full of coca leaves and occasional nips of 96% proof alcohol.

One of the miners we met underground. Raul is twenty five, has two kids and has been working the mines for five years. Note the characteristic was of coca in his cheek.
One of the miners we met underground. Raul is twenty five, has two kids and has been working the mines for five years. Note the characteristic wad of coca in his cheek and the bottle of soda we’ve given him.

Nasty, brutish and short

“What’s that smell?” asked Fiona. “Arsenic” replied our guide, “it’s released in the dynamite explosions”. He was refreshingly matter of fact about the health hazards that miners face. Most develop serious respiratory conditions from inhaling the dust in the mines day after day. This causes them to cough blood and struggle to breathe, but they keep going.

The mine structures themselves are dangerous. There are poisonous gases and explosions. Last year thirty two miners died and six have died so far this year. We wonder if the cooperative structure, essentially thirty nine different mines in the same hill, contributes to the danger.

All this adds up to miners with a life expectancy of somewhere between forty five and fifty years. But, as the miners we spoke to emphasised, in Potosí, there aren’t really any other choices.

Getting by with a little help from the devil

The miners are nominally catholic above ground, but have no hesitation worshiping the devil below it. On the first Friday of the month they gather in front of a statue of Tio to make offerings and ask for access to good minerals. They return on the last Friday to give thanks. There’s a bunch of that 96% proof alcohol involved again.

Offerings to an underground devil.
Offerings to an underground devil.

It seems unfair to begrudge the miners a little devil worship. They work in dangerous conditions doing difficult things. You can see why they’d need a mythology to keep them going.

The mine has kept its workers fed and housed for hundred of years now, but some estimates suggest there may be only ten years of mining left. Who knows what will happen to Potosí then, or its miners. Then again, enough offerings to the devil, and the mine may be good for a hundred years more.

 

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