June 16, 2010–Potosi, Bolivia
At 4,090 meters (13,420 ft), Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world. Due to Spanish exploitation of the silver mines at Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), in the 17th century Potosi was the richest city in all of Latin America and among the richest in the world. Operating the mines using unsafe methods and slave labor, this rate of production so damaged the enslaved indian population that a continuous supply of slaves from Africa were brought in to meet demand. The mines are still in operation as a cooperative today, however, poor conditions mean that most miners will die by 40 years of age.
You can see the headlamp of a miner as he pushes a cart full of ore out of the mine. The dark, damp, and worst of all dusty mines were hard enough to walk through. The dust produces silicosis in most of the miners. Kaori and I were the only people wearing dust masks.
The mine is composed of several levels, and moving between levels means climbing up and down narrow chutes as long as 30 meters. The deeper you go, the hotter and harder to breathe it becomes. The high altitude adds to the problem.
Workers here repairing broken tools. They told us of a collapse that killed one of their fathers.
The miners we spoke with were very aware of the dangers that this work entails. The benefit, however, of being able to provide for an entire extended family with their wage alone, seems to overshadow the certain health problems of the future. Pay for miners is much, much higher than any other work they might find.
Workers visit the “patron saint” of the mines to ask for higher yield and safety and also to show thanks. Some say that the statue appears as the devil in an attempt by Spaniards to scare the workers into submission, however, the large phallus of the statue and local legends of Pachamama (Mother Earth) indicate an animistic ideology where subjects hope for “impregnation” of the mountain.
We were in the mountain for less than two hours, we were more than ready to leave when the time came. The heat and the altitude combined with breathing through masks had taken a toll on us. Eight hours a day, six days a week? No way.