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Published: July 13th 2006
Potosi at the base of Cerro Rico.
Potosi was once the richest city of South America. Silver and other precious material has been mined from its Cerro Rico, meaning rich mountain, for more than four centuries. And a visit to this city is still impresive today.
High in the Andes I could hardly catch my breath in the first days. At about 4100m Potosi is as high as human settlements get. While the vast number of churches and decorated colonial buildings testify the wealth of the past, the mines inside Cerro Rico still opperate today. For most of the men that are forced by the alternative of unemployment to deal with the grim reality of the mining job the situation has hardly changed compared to their comrades from the colonial times. During the mining history of Cerro Rico an estimated number of eigth million people have died in the mines or from miner's deseases. When I visited the mines and saw what the work is like those poor souls came alive quickly and I could imagine how the greed for precious metal made the spaniards force more and more slaves into the tunnels. During a guided tour with an ex-miner we were told that in colonial times slaves
Tower of Compania Jesus. Old bell tower where I had a good view over the city.
used to work in shifts of six month. Which meant that they did not see daylight for half a year and had to cover their eyes if they survived and left the underworld again.
The guided tour began with a visit to the miner's market. Here all the accessories for the mining business are sold. Hammer and chisel, shovel, head lamp, batterie, helmet, rubber boots, and dynamite kits. To cope with the hard work most miners consume coca leaves all day long, a cheap drug readily available all across Bolivia. As a present for the miners we were going to visit we bought some dynamite kits, some soft drinks, some coca leaves, and some cigarettes. We also had a short visit to a milling plant where the mined ore is purified in chemical - means toxical - solutions.
Then we went to visit one of the mines, the Candelaria Mine. It was nothing like the museum mines you can see in Europe. Everything was really primitive. No electric light, no air ventilation, in the tallest tunnels one could just stand upright. In the first floor a one-ton lorry was pushed and pulled along a spoiled narrow gauge track by
Potosi once was th richest city in South Amercia.
two miners. Down hill it was hardly manageable. So everybody was scared and pressed against the tunnel wall when an "Indiana Jones coming!" anounced the next lorry. At the entrance of the mine the air was cold and lacked oxygen. Inside the mine it got sweaty hot, the air still lacked oxygen and the was full of noxious gases. The dust got thicker and thicker, set into my nostrils, and made me cough. When we climbed down to the second floor some of the girls in our group paniced already. The tunnels got so narrow that we had to crawl on all fours at times. This stirred up even more dust and with our faces close to the ground we were covered by a thin layer of it very soon.
In the third floor we met the first miners at their working places. Down there they use the hammer and chisel to make the blastholes. Very few have a compressed air hammer at hand for their task. On the one hand few can afford such a tool, on the other hand it produces a hell of dust in seconds, without the availability of water or airventilation to fight the dust.
Many houses in Potosi have large wooden balconies.
When all the blastholes have been made they are filled with the dynymite and amonium-nitrate fertilizer. In the evening at five o'clock the miners light the fuses and leave the mine. With that proceding they try to minimize the risk of accidents through cave-ins. But the neccessity to mine the ore faster and in greater quantities often makes miners disregard the precautions. With all the deadly concequences.
Generally death is present in most of the miners' lifes. Not sudden death because of a cave-in but slow and agonizing death because of silicosis and lung cancer. A miner starting his working life at the age of eighteen has a life expectancy of around forty. If he starts as a runner for his father as a child it reduces to a short thirty years! This kind of child labor is still quite common.
Nobody of our group wanted to see the fourth floor. We were all glad go back and finally leave the mine again. Tired, dusty, and drenched in sweat we could hardly imagine what it must be like to work down there for the whole day, five or six days a week... As a "cure" for a week of mining
The rich residents of Potosi built many churches. The front side of this one has stone ornaments around the huge wooden door.
work a bottle of methylated spirit at friday evening lets the miner forget about his everydaylife and ruines the saturday as well.
Outside the mine again I witnessed another group of tourists blow up their dynamite kit. I had the feeling that some of the guides, all of them ex-miners, have lost the necessary respect for the explosives. No wonder since every child in Potosi is able to by a complete blasting kit (a bar of dynamite, a bag of fertilizer, and a fuse with initiator) for about two dollar. Not only that they cut half the fuses, thus not knowing the exact detonation time. A crowd of about ten panicing tourists, all carrying around a ready-set and lighted fuse blasting kit seemed a bit irresponsible...
After I had acclimatized I stayed a few more days to enjoy the city, the agile people, and the magnificence of the colonial architecture.
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