The beggar sleeping on a bed of gold

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Potosi
February 26th 2008
Published: February 26th 2008
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Potosí is a small town south of La Paz, its architecture reflecting a very special, long-held colonial interest. It is the town sitting around the base of the Cerro Rico - the Rich Mountain - a red hill revered in sacred art from the 17th century onwards, the Virgin being portrayed sitting on it as she would on a throne.

One day, a long time ago, a llama farmer lost one of his flock in the wilds of the Bolivian foothills. He walked and walked to retrieve it, finally coming upon it on this prominent hill as night fell. Too late to return to his distant village, he decided to camp on the mountain, lighting a fire to keep himself warm as the wind whipped up the valley. Imagine his surprise when, on awaking the next morning, he discovered rivulets of silver coursing between the stones on which he slept, melted by the heat of his fire! Soon after, he started mining this mountain of hidden wealth, and decided to share his secret with a friend, so that together they could work more effectively to gather their riches while protecting this treasure trove from the greedy exploitation of the Conquistadores who had a tendency to pillage every natural resource - especially ones concerning precious metals - in these Andean regions, as the Incas (had they survived) would attest. Unfortunately, the friends soon fell out, and one told the Spanish what secret Potosí held, and soon after, the Europeans moved in to take control of the Cerro Rico - a huge source of silver, gold, zinc, copper and other metals, used to make among other things, vast quantities of coins and medals for the Spanish and other European empires.

Now, finally, the Bolivian state owns the sacred Cerro Rico, with cooperatives of miners (numbering over 15,000 members all together, including women for the first time) working the anthill-like tunnels and channels that dissect its internal cavities, day upon day, slowly - with mallet and chisel - adding to the lace-like map of the mountain. The miners work for themselves; for every ten tonnes of raw silver ore they mine, they receive 1500 Bolivianos (about 100 GBP), from which they pay a dividend to the State and their cooperative. Boys from the age of eleven upwards work in the constricted spaces of the mines during their school holidays, to help the family's finances, and will continue to work, sometimes seven days a week until their forties when either they retire from lung problems or death from the ensuing silicosis. Some even make it to their fifties. Some, like our guide, find a richer seam to exploit - the tourists - glad to be able to exit the mine with a salary after a two hour round trip, once a day.

Before entering the mine, it is customary to buy some gifts for the miners, such things as large bags of coca leaves, alcohol, cigarettes, fizzy drinks and dynamite. The miners chew, suck and spit their way through 40-50 grammes of coca leaves a day - which is a sizeable quantity - while underground. With catalyzers made from banana, quinoa or other grains, the coca leaves suppress hunger (since it's bad luck to eat in the mine) and make the miners lose sense of time, so that they are able to endure long 8-hour days monotonously, painfully hammering, digging and scraping. A ball of coca leaves in the mouth retains its sweetness for three hours; the bitterness that comes afterwards acts as a clock to the miner, telling him how long he's been at the rock face. "Pure alcohol, pure silver", so the saying goes; if I hadn't seen it myself, I wouldn't have believed that 96% proof sugar cane alcohol would been the perfect complement to a warren of tortuous tunnels and exploding dynamite. Nevertheless, this is the drink of choice for the various festivities that the miners conduct underground, at hollowed out "chapels" with statues of devilish Tío with his long member, on which they hang streamers. Here they put lit cigarettes in his mouth, have fiestas and carnavales, drink beer and the pure alcohol, and leave offerings to Tío so that he will provide them with lots of sons, with lots of silver, and protection from the perils of their work. The cane alcohol, however unsurprisingly, is the main cause of death and accidents down the mine.

We bought all these things for the miners we met, but our guide decided to show us how to prepare the dynamite outside the mine, exploding it with a rib-shaking boom away from us. Holding the lit fuse, grinning, he said that we now had five minutes to take photos before it exploded, as we edged away nervously. While in the mine we heard some dynamite explode in a neighbouring tunnel, reverberating the rock walls around us as we grabbed each other in fear. We spent a total of an hour and a half underground, after which I was much relieved to get out of the dust and confined atmosphere into the sunlight. Unlike many of the coal mines I've been in in the UK, which have enlarged passages and Health and Safety officers perched at the entrances, this was a working mine with tourists as a sideline. We started a slippery descent on the smooth clay, sliding on our behinds further into the bowels of the Cerro Rico. We used our hands and nails to scramble up and down and along passages only wide enough for a small Bolivian miner, twisting and contorting our bodies so the headlamps and battery packs wouldn't get stuck on protruding rocks. We lay in tunnels and spoke blindly to miners ahead of us, in cul-de-sacs of rock, with flame lamps to detect noxious gases as they twisted the chisel, hit, twisted, hit, twisted, hit, for the next six hours with few breaks. It was backbreaking just squeezing through the tunnels, or abseiling five metres down into black caverns holding only a knotted, frayed rope, and when we came to a ventilation shaft, we gazed upwards longingly at the bright sunshine outside wondering how much longer the tour would last, convinced that we'd got our seventy Bolivianos worth thank you very much, can we go out now? It was a unique experience, and powerful in how much we, in our comfortable lives at our computers back home, have no idea of the mental and physical strength needed to provide us with our silver trinkets cluttering those dining tables at Christmas.

Bolivia´s plains, edged with purplish-red, orange, and green-grey mountains, is almost bubbling with hidden riches contained in metal ores which tint the rocks with hues I have never seen in a landscape before, burning with colours at sunset in particular. Its well-known nickname - the beggar sleeping on a bed of gold - derives from this astonishing wealth of natural materials contained within one of the poorest South American countries, unmined for difficulties of accessing or transporting the raw materials on a limited infrastructure, or for other reasons of poor government or conflicts with outside interests. Although moutainous, of which large areas are impractical for farming, the majority of people still live on the Altiplano and not in the fertile valleys east of Cochabamba, although Evo Morales´ government is trying to persuade people to move to these more promising lands. As I gathered from a long conversation with a friendly Bolivian-American director named Percy on the bus to Potosí, Morales is the first indigenous president of the Bolivian republic and a socialist, trying to improve the lot of the Quechua and Aymara peoples, frequently wearing the multicoloured Andean flag when talking to other world leaders. Various guides I've encountered in Bolivian, being of indigenous decent, speak highly of him and take great pains to point out the solar panels and corrugated tin roofing provided by the government in really rural areas. It is, however, also telling that large American and European companies have fenced off large areas of the central desert area for their private mines, their security guards directing traffic on the public highways that pass through their territories.


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