The Mountain that Eats Men: A Journey into the Mines of Cerro Rico, Potosí, Bolivia

July 30, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Cerro RicoCerro RicoMined since Pre-Columbian times, this mountain dominates the skyline above Potosí


The 'Monstrous Babylon'

I can scarcely believe my eyes when I peer into the gloom of the small store before me. Amid the clutter on the floor are several plastic bags marked ‘ANFO’ which are bulging with light pink grains. ‘That’s ammonium nitrate!’ I whisper to Martin, who then proceeds to raise the jaw-dropping stakes even further by pointing out an open box containing sticks of dynamite! We block the doorway staring in wild eyed bewilderment at one of just scores of potential tinder boxes in this narrow street. ‘Go inside’, smiled Roberto, our guide, ‘you have to buy some gifts to give to the miners we will meet on our tour’.

Shop in the Miners' MarketShop in the Miners' MarketEverything a miner needs can be bought here, including high explosives!

Martin and I are in Potosí, a mining city at the southern end of the Bolivian Altiplano. It’s impossible not to notice Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) which towers over the narrow cobbled streets of the city. Over 4,700 metres in height, it has given birth to the highest mining city in the world. The silver lodes of Cerro Rico were worked in Pre-Incan times, but were exploited on a grand scale by the Spanish Conquistadores making the mines of Potosí world famous. Indeed novelist, Miguel de Cervantes, placed the words ‘Vale un Potosí’ (It is worth a Potosí), into the mouth of his hero, Don Quixote. The ore derived from these mines bankrolled the Hapsburg Empire for centuries, exciting the envy and suspicion of all other monarchs in Europe. It was said that you could have built a bridge of silver ingots to Madrid from the ore mined here.

But this incredible wealth came at a huge cost to human life. Cerro Rico can be seen as a colossal monument to the tragedy of Spanish conquest. Potosí, now a World Heritage Site (WHS) boasts a number of ornate Baroque churches, a virtually intact mint and opulent colonial buildings, all raised on the back of slave labour and was formerly described as ‘a monstrous Babylon’. Some say this city and its mountain represent the largest site of physical exploitation in the world during the colonial period (1546-1825). Countless indigenous men from across the Andes were press-ganged by the Spanish into servitude to work the mines under the Pre-Colombian mita system. Alongside black African slaves, the miteros toiled in the most appalling and dangerous conditions, often sleeping underground for weeks on end. Many never saw their homes or families again, killed in the mines, literally worked to death, or poisoned by the toxic effects of mercury used on the patio (ore processing) floors. Although records of fatalities were not kept, it is estimated that over eight million mineworkers perished in Potosí during colonial times. Enough hapless victims to build a road of bones from Cerro Rico, ‘the mountain that eats men’, all the way to Madrid.

By the early nineteenth century, the output of the Cerro de Potosí began to significantly decline as the silver deposits worked in the rich oxidised zones in the upper part of the mountain were mostly worked out. Compounded by looting during the 1820s Wars of Independence, Potosí’s star began to wane. However, deeper tin lodes (along with other base minerals such as zinc, lead and cadmium) gradually supplanted silver during the twentieth century. But by the 1930’s the tin barons who controlled the majority of Bolivian mines were perceived to be exploiting the indigenous labour force. Groups of workers banded together to fight for more autonomy, and the tin barons were eventually marginalized when the mining sector was nationalised and the Bolivian Mining Corporation (COMIBOL) was formed after the revolution of 1952.

The collapse of the tin market in 1985 resulted in massive layoffs of miners and considerable restructuring of the mining sector, including the decentralisation of COMIBOL into five semiautonomous and privatised mining enterprises in 1986. In order to survive in this hostile climate, the miners formed cooperatives which are still functioning today. COMIBOL still owns Cerro Rico but licenses its operation to a handful of multinationals and over 200 such cooperatives who pay to rent an area of the mountain in which they have been granted permission to work, sharing the profits of their labour between themselves. The rise in mineral prices in recent years has witnessed a recovery and expansion of the mining sector. Over 16,000 miners are presently estimated to be at work in the mines of Potosí. Most work in cooperatives that are extracting low grade silver-bearing ore from the old workings in Cerro Rico which is becoming dangerously unstable…

Intrigued by the history of this famous mining area, for a mere US $10 Martin and I have signed up for a half day tour into Mina Candelaria (the Candlemas Mine named for the famous Catholic fiesta in February). Kitted out with well-worn protective overalls, a helmet, battery powered cap lamp, wellies and colourful bandanas, we hop aboard a minibus with several other people.

Mining statues in PotosíMining statues in PotosíMining is the lifeblood of Potosí as these commemorative statues illustrate This sluggishly groans up a maze of narrow streets spewing clouds of black fumes, before entering a bustling square where it shudders to a halt. At its centre is a huge rocky mound at the base of which is a grilled adit entrance with a mine wagon behind it. Atop this mound, supposedly meant to represent Cerro Rico, is a gleaming golden figure of a miner holding a pneumatic drill in one hand and a gun aloft in the other. It speaks volumes about Bolivian history! My eye then catches another resplendent figure kneeling below. It's a chola woman complete with characteristic full skirts and bowler hat, brandishing a small hammer in her right hand and a rock in her left. She represents one of the palliris, female ore-breakers, who fossick through the mine dumps of Cerro Rico to grub an informal living to help to maintain their families.

Although it has been a WHS since 1985, to suggest that Potosí possesses a charm comparable to other WHS cities in the Andes is stretching the imagination somewhat. It is bitterly cold at night and the altitude means you fight for every breath walking up its steep cobbled streets where you are choked by sooty clouds of cheap petrol fumes from the incessant traffic and the unavoidable inhalation of the beige haze of fine mineral dust that seems to seep into every nook and cranny. Many parts of the city are gritty working neighbourhoods and numerous buildings in the historic centre look decidedly down at heel; an atmosphere of quiet neglect appears to have settled over the streets along with the fuel soot and mineral dust.

The Miners’ Market running higgledy–piggledy up the steep side of Cerro Rico which is thronged with squatting vendors hawking goods from hand carts, and fast food stalls feeding ravenous groups of miners just off-shift, definitely falls into this category! It is in one of the small stores here where we spot the dynamite and ANFO for sale. We find it hard to believe that high explosives are stored so casually in the scores of shops lining this street and are sold to anyone, no licence required, no questions asked. Along with bottles of water and fizzy drinks, we do as Roberto suggests and purchase two explosive kits each containing a small plastic bag of ANFO, a stick of dynamite, and a coil of safety fuse for the princely sum of 17 Bolivianos (about 1.50 euro) each!

Miners' MarketMiners' MarketOne of many shops selling goods to the mineworkers in Potosí

Almost opposite the mining store, next to a chola woman busily hacking the head off an alpaca’s carcass, is the stall of a coca leaf seller. Prematurely aged, the harshness of life on the Altiplano is etched into the thousands of lines on her brown and wizened face. Roberto explains that the miners do not eat underground, but rely on the stimulating effects of chewing coca leaves to dull their hunger and stave off fatigue during their arduous 10 hour plus shifts. ‘First explosives, now drugs!’ I think as we hand over the money for a couple of bags of the pale green, strong smelling leaves, drawing an almost toothless smile from the vendor.


The Rape of ‘Mother Earth’

After a short journey out of the city we stop outside a series of crude hutches above one of around 39 ore treatment plants that dot the mountainside. In these hutches, a cooperative’s ore is stored and assayed before being processed so the group can receive its fair share of the price of the concentrate. The mill is truly primitive and the workers wear no protective equipment. Roberto explains that the ore is processed with various chemicals and reagents to separate the silver, casually waving his hand at an open vat of cyanide nearby: ‘It used to be worse when mercury was used!’ Several of our tour group look horrified and promptly cover their faces with their bandanas! The ore is reduced in ball mills then treated in froth flotation cells. Base minerals occurring with the silver ore, such as lead and zinc, were previously discarded as it was not considered commercially viable to extract them. But rising mineral prices has resulted in an increased recovery of all minerals. However, we suspect that the untreated effluent from this mill eventually discharges into a local river system…

La Virgen del CerroLa Virgen del CerroIn this famous painting, the Virgin Mary is portrayed as the mountain of Cerro Rico. A clever device to appease the indigenous population, for in Andean culture Cerro Rico is adjudged to be female and mountains represent Pachamama Behind the processing plant, Cerro Rico rises against the deep blue sky of the Altiplano like a giant ochre-coloured anthill. It contains more than 650 separate entrances and is literally honeycombed with hundreds of thousands of tunnels that follow increasingly impoverished mineral veins. With limited state regulation and little concern for safety, the mine workings are randomly driven and the whole mountain is now believed to be inherently unsafe; catastrophic collapses are predicted. Indeed, all mining near the peak was suspended in 2009 after the ground there began to subside. Over 500 years of mineral extraction has already decreased the mountain’s height significantly. This epitomises the rape of ‘Mother Earth’, for in indigenous Andean culture Cerro Rico is adjudged to be female, and mountains represent Pachamama (the earth/time mother). This fact was quickly understood by the conquering Spaniards who ensured that she became synonymous with the Virgin Mary to convert the indigenous peoples to Catholicism. This association is especially evident in Potosí’s most famous painting on display in the Royal Mint - the anonymous eighteenth century La Virgen del Cerro - where the Virgin Mary is portrayed as the mountain of Cerro Rico.

Cooperative mineworkers can earn three to five times the amount of money made by those in menial service jobs or agriculture, although by western standards their wages are still pitifully low. Moreover, they are not immune to exploitation, and many complain that the managers take the lion’s share of the collective income leaving them with barely enough money to get by on each month. But with Potosí being the poorest state in the poorest country in South America, mining is the area’s lifeblood. The costs to human health or the environment are far outweighed by the driving need to feed large families. More than half of the 240,000 residents residing in the city whose dusty houses creep towards the mountainside as if lured to Cerro Rico by an invisible magnetic force, depend directly on the mines for their livelihoods. It is not hard to see why Potosinos have good reason to thank Pachamama, making daily libations to her for the gifts she has bestowed on Cerro Rico…


Descent into the underworld

Our minibus continues ever higher up the mountainside, lurching over rutted tracks and throwing up clouds of ochre coloured dust before it eventually arrives outside the ramshackle entrance to Mina Candelaria, over 4,500 metres above sea level. Possessing four levels and running continuously for over 300 years, it is one of the oldest mines in the Cerro. Crudely built stone buildings half set in the ground with roofs of galvanized iron and plastic sheeting held down by rocks and bits of old machinery, cluster around Level One, the mine’s main portal. An empty wagon rumbles by on a tramway, pushed by a short, but powerfully built miner who disappears into the tunnel entrance. We follow him in to begin our two hour tour. The portal walls are initially coated in fine dust, but as we progress deeper into the mine, blooms of bright yellow sulphur appear on everything. Several miners pass us on the way in to start their shift. Roberto knows them all; he had once worked here as a miner himself. Bent double in places, the high altitude immediately begins to take its toll and it becomes harder to breathe as the temperature inside the level rises uncomfortably.

Mina CandelariaMina CandelariaSituated at over 4,500 metres above sea level this mine possesses four levels and has worked continuously for over 300 years, making it is one of the oldest mines in the Cerro

About 400 metres in and close to an ore chute encrusted with sulphur, we stop. Roberto announces that we are going to clamber on our hands and knees over a pile of loose rock to access a short, low drive beyond. Two women in our group shriek uncontrollably and announce that they are too afraid to continue. They turn tail and head back down the tunnel to the surface. Inside the hot, airless drive, gasping for breath and seeking somewhere to sit, I stagger about like a drunkard. I am suddenly aware of a figure close to me. As I turn my head, my cap lamp illuminates a hideously grotesque horned and moustached clay figure sporting an enormous erect phallus. It is seated amid a heap of empty tin cans, plastic bottles and crumbling cigarettes, garlanded in luridly coloured paper streamers and covered in rotting coca leaves.

El Tío, Mina CandelariaEl Tío, Mina CandelariaThe grotesque statue of El Tío surrounded by miners' libations

‘Meet El Tío, the Lord of the Underworld!’, announces Roberto. Just as local people make daily libations to Pachamama, the miners make offerings each Friday to El Tío (literally ‘The Uncle’), who is associated with pre-Hispanic huacas (revered objects) as well as the Christian Devil. He is a central figure in the ritual life of Bolivian mining communities. As there is no state enforced health and safety regimen in the mines of Cerro Rico, and cost cutting by the cooperatives sees little attempt to shore up tunnels or replace failing timberwork, the miners place their faith in Tío, presenting him with gifts of alcohol, coca leaves, cigarettes and llama blood in return for his goodwill and guarantee of health, safety and good fortune in the mines. Judging by the state of the level we have just traversed, I half wish I had brought along something to placate Tío myself!

Mina Candelaria, PotosíMina Candelaria, PotosíA sulphur-encrusted ore chute in the old workings of the mine

Returning to the tunnel on Level One, we then began the hellish descent down through ancient workings via Level Two to Level Three. Used nowadays only as an access route for the levels above and below, the air in Level Two is foul and thick with dust. The way on involves crawling on all fours in places through tunnels barely large enough to permit an adult to pass. My anal nerve almost fails as we wriggle under rotting stulls holding up large quantities of deads. Squeezing through partially collapsed raises and shimmying down dodgy stull-work within a winze which bottoms out dangerously close to an open stope will remain indelibly etched on my memory. Standing next to an old windlass above this winze, Roberto explains that before an electrical winch was installed a few years ago to raise the ore from Level Three to Level One, the miners had to carry over 40 kg of ore up through these tight rocky passageways in bags slung over their backs.

By now my face is beaded with perspiration and my heart thumps incessantly against my ribcage as I fight for every breath in the impossibly hot, dry and foul air. The acrid sulphurous taste of the dust catches in the back of my throat and makes me cough till I gag. ‘I’ve been in safer abandoned mines in Cornwall’, I say to Martin as we clamber down another horrible raise, only to arrive on a narrow rocky shelf where I light-headedly gaze into a deep stope that promptly swallows the light from my cap lamp. One slip here…

It is with considerable relief that we finally emerge into a tunnel in which it is possible to stand upright. ‘This is Level Three, the “Gringo Level”’, Roberto says with a laugh. A low hiss from ventilation pipes bringing clean air down from the surface fills the tunnel. It is now far easier to breathe. This is the main haulage way where ore from Level Four is raised and trammed along in wagons to be sorted before being hauled to the surface. We follow the tram tracks for some distance before ascending a short ladderway into a rock strewn drive. A hammering sound greets us and in the gloom a miner appears at the forehead.

Miner in Mina CandelariaMiner in Mina CandelariaSingle jacking in a scene straight out of the nineteenth century

Alone in this airless drive, one cheek bulging with a wad of coca leaves and drenched in perspiration, he is single jacking a bore hole with a drill steel in preparation for an explosive charge. It is like a scene straight out of the nineteenth century. I confess to being moved as I shake this man’s hand and give him our gifts of explosives and coca leaves. We then return to the main haulage way where several men pass us straining to push heavily laden wagons of ore which constantly jump the tracks. Some don’t look old enough to shave. They are conveying the ore to their colleagues who are shovelling it into rubber kibbles to be hauled up a shaft by the electric winch. Most are working, red eyed, amid clouds of choking dust without masks. It unsettles me to think that these young men, who stop work to greet us and humbly accept our gifts of coca leaves, fizzy drinks and water, are unlikely to reach middle age.

We are not taken to Level Four, currently the main work area, where the horrors of the working conditions may be left to the imagination. The climb back up through the old men’s workings of Level Two is even more arduous, stifling and airless than the descent, and I am mightily relieved to see the bright pin point of light of the entrance portal appear in the reeking sulphurous darkness.

Tour group, Mina CandelariaTour group, Mina CandelariaEveryone was glad to see the light of day after emerging from the hellish mine workings!

Cerro Rico is no model of operational safety and its mineworkers toil in shocking conditions that lag way behind the rest of the world. And this mountain is still eating men. On average, life expectancy among the miners is less than forty years and several men die each week from silicosis or through mining related accidents. Countless women in Potosí are widows or widows in waiting, and most face an uncertain future of bringing up large families on their own.

However, it might be somewhat disingenuous to see these men and their families purely as victims. They value their independence, are proud of their work in the mines, and receive better pay for their efforts than they could earn if employed in menial jobs outside the mining sector. I do, however, question the wisdom of allowing hundreds of tourists each day to enter workings that are unregulated, inherently unsafe and, quite frankly, a death trap. Given that the current high price of minerals has stimulated mining activity and the fact that the whole of Cerro Rico has been rendered so fragile and unstable because it is literally riddled with mine workings, 'the mountain that eats men’ could soon find itself feasting on unsuspecting tourists.


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