As we were going to Sucre, the capital city of Bolivia, we decided to stop in Potosi on the way, a miner’s city. The city is (or more exactly was) famous for its silver founded on the mountain dominating the town (“Cero Rico” meaning “Rich mountain”) at an altitude of 4824m.
With the invasion of the Spanish, mines were exploited by Indian (of America) slaves… During this time millions of people died because of the scarce working conditions.
After 1810, the Independency, miners started to work in cooperative but mines were declared “empty” and no investments were made to improve the safety and working conditions. Nowadays, miners are still exploiting the mine in an artisanal manner. It is a risky job to find a little of copper, zinc and silver.
Visiting a mine is controversy but we decided to discover one… But not as a “tourist”; we just wanted to understand the city and its people. We chose the travel agency “Big Deal Tours”, which proposes to visit the mine with old miners. The tour is more expensive than the majority of the other agencies but a part of your money goes for the miners themselves…. And you visit a real mine, not a mine built for tourism….
It is important to note that a miner earn “a lot” of money: at least 3000 bolivianos per month and the minimum salary in Bolivia is 1480 Bolivianos. But unfortunately, working conditions are really hard and safety is poor. Even if the men are now working in cooperative, each of them earns money only regarding the quality and the quantity of what he brings at the surface.
Safety doesn’t exist inside the mine and no engineer ever checked to stability of the man y galleries. (There is no map of the mine, even though the mountain looks like a gruyere…). Miners work with a pair of jeans, a shirt, gummi boots and a cask with an electric lamp. Some of them use a breathing mask. They use dynamite to explode hard walls. The luckiest (and richest) have a marteau piqueur with compressed air and a small wagon to move their rocks but the other ones have only a peak and a hammer and have to carry the rocks on their back.
While entering in the mine, I was scared… and after few minutes we could hear (and feel) 12 detonations. Left, Right, above us, under us? No idea, but what I know is that it wasn’t far away… We walked even more inside the mine until a place where we couldn’t stand anymore. We had to scrawl to go further ahead. Air was humid and warm… and dusty! For us, as simple visitors, it was already hard, but for them, it must be like hell !
Talking about hell, there is a “God” inside the mine, represented by a statue of what we call “the devil”. His name is “Tio”, and he isn’t bad; he is the protector of the mine. To keep him happy and be lucky, miners make him donations: cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol and lama foetus. Always in an even number, because uneven numbers bring unlucky. The entry of the mine is also covered with lama blood to satisfy the Pachamama (Godess of the Earth). Those donations take place (most of the time) at the beginning of the month to ask for good luck and at the end of the month to say “thank you”.
As we visited the mine the last Friday of the month, it was a “day of celebration”…. At least in a special way… We saw many miners completely drunk! But with an alcohol at 96%, it is not a surprise! But unfortunately, drinking for them is not for celebrating, it is more for forgetting their hard job. Can we really blame them for that??? Een if it is chocking, we can understand… What is harder to see, is a working child. Our guide himself started when he was 9. This 15 year old boy that we saw, was working with his father to bring money or his 5 siblings and his mother. A choice? Of course not…
That day we only saw one kid, but I’m sadly sure that they are many of them in this dark and dangerous mine…
So it is not surprising that all miners are addict to coca leaves. Coca is a plant from where the cocaine is made from. (but the plant itself is not cocaine). All miners chew coca leaves and keep it in their cheeks for several hours. It is said that the juice of the coca leaves helps against altitude, gives more energy and reduces the feeling of hunger! Once the leaves don’t taste anything, miners spit them and take new ones… all day long!
After 2 hours inside the mine, we came outside in the fresh air. The experience was “interesting”; we could understand why Potosi is Potosi; a beautiful city. We were also “chocked” by seeing the really poor working conditions. It is something that we won’t do twice but which made us think about of lot of things… And if you want to “imagine” how the hell inside a mine is, I advise you to read “33 men” from Hector Tobar who tells the story of the 33 Chilean miners who were kept underground for 69 days in 2010. (I just finished it before going to the mine, and it wasn’t the best idea ever…)
Miners keep asking the government new and safer installations, an hospital, better infrastructures and a higher price for their minerals (as it is the only source of work in Potosi) as the president promised when he was elected… But even after many strikes nothing changes. Miners keep going inside the dangerous mine every day and are dying slowly. Millions of people died there and it is unfortunately not finished. In Europe, we strike for less work and more holidays, but try just 5 minutes to think about these men and children who work there to earn enough money to survive…
As you understood, sometimes things chock us, but that’s also why we love traveling so much… Opening our eyes and mind on a world different from what we know, discovering new ways of life, being astonished, happy, scared… We love it!!!
The next stop in Sucre and Torotoro will bring us in the past, in the era of the dinosaurs!!