Hope & Hardship
In The Shadow Of The Rich Hill
By Benjamin Paul
Don Sîmon’s right eye was discoloured and glassy as he
sat stoically, chewing coca leaves, in a small shack outside his mine
on the Cerro Rico mountain above the
city of Potosî, in South-western Bolivia. The dynamite accident three weeks
before had robbed him of the eye’s vision completely and severely limited the
use of his left eye. Two days later, in a tiny cave, deep underground, lit only
by the beam of his headlamp, this veteran of 32 years in the mines packed
dynamite and ammonium nitrate into a cavity he had chiselled into solid
rock. After lighting the fuse, he escaped through a crawl space no
wider than him. The dull thud of an explosion brought a ton or more of zinc ore
down, ready to be collected and manhandled to the surface.
Mining in the Cerro Rico
is something of a gamble. Some find veins of silver and get rich, taking
themselves and their families out of the mountain, setting up businesses in ore
refinement or tourism. Some strike reliable and abundant sources of quality
zinc ore and make a good living. Some find almost nothing, get injured or die
of silicosis, cave-ins and wagon accidents. The table stakes are
Cerro Rico, which translates as ‘Rich
Hill’, contains some of the world’s oldest and most productive mines.
Discovered by chance in 1545, while Diego
de Huallpa was searching for an Inca shrine at the behest of the
Conquistadors, the abundant silver was soon bankrolling the Spanish Empire. Potosî,
the settlement below the mountain, became one of the most important cities
of the New World and the site of the colonial mint.
The Cerro Rico has
another, much older name, Surmaq Urqu,
or ‘Beautiful Mountain’ in Quechua. It’s difficult today to look past the
almost five centuries of industrial evisceration that has scarred the peak with
pits, holes and rubble-strewn terraces. In 2011 the top of the Cerro Rico began to cave in due to the
rat’s nest of tunnels dug through it weakening its structure. Filling in with
ultra-light cement is just a stopgap and there is a rumour among the
miners that the whole mountain could collapse in on itself, layer by
layer. There is no map or plan of the tunnel systems, the 180 operational mines
are worked by experience and received knowledge, so there is little hope of a
The human, as well as the environmental cost is also staggeringly
high. Some writers have estimated a total of between 4 and 8 million people
could have died in the mountain since the 16th century, mostly slaves.
After black Africans brought in from the Atlantic colonies began to die to
droves, the Spanish invaders decided to indenture the local Quechua population,
compelling them to do six months forced labour in the mines every seven years.
The Quechua, who were better accustomed to the altitude, climate and cramped
working spaces were far more useful to the Spanish, although treated little
better than their African counterparts.
After independence was won from Spain in 1825, the slavery
ended. In 1901 a period of corporate ownership led to intensive
extraction that severely impacted the local ecosystem through deforestation for
timber supports and the damming and contamination of water sources. In 1994
after the failure of the nationalised mines under the state-run company COMIBOL, mining cooperatives began to
appear, with little oversight or regulation. Today the co-ops on the Cerro Rico number 38 and they run
themselves with complete autonomy. The Bolivian government, it seems, is happy
to leave the miners to their own devices, as long as they can collect the
There is another option for the miners of the Cerro Rico, as hard as it may be to believe, there is a thriving
tourist industry that centres on the mines, taking paying visitors into the
first, relatively safe level. Potosî is littered with tour agencies offering
such trips and there is some debate as to the ethics. Even the Lonely Planet
guide cautions “We urge you not to underestimate the dangers involved with
going into the mines and to consider the voyeuristic factor involved in seeing
other people’s suffering”. However, 37 year old Pedro, an ex-miner and
owner of the Big Deal Tours agency is
having none of it.
Short and sturdily built with dark skin and a thick head of hair,
Pedro’s booming, lyrical voice carries above the early morning bustle of the Mercado de Mineros. “Don’t
worry!” he grins, as he throws a stick of dynamite at the feet of an
Australian tour group, eliciting some to jump back in fright. “It’s
perfectly safe. You need this to set it off”, he says, mock-biting the
detonator on the end of a green fuse. The miner’s market is the first stop on
the often twice-daily tours that Pedro and his company run into the mines. The
tourists buy small gifts for the miners: coca leaves, cigarettes, sodas and
dynamite. On Friday’s the shopping list also includes 96% grain alcohol.
From a mining family, his father died at 55 with 40 years
experience in the Cerro Rico, Pedro
considers the work dignified and important, “The mines can make you rich
but you always have at least something for your belly”. However to hear
him tell it, most miners don’t want their children to follow them down into the
darkness. “I’ve heard miners say that they are ready to die now because
their children have an education. They don’t have to work in the mines”.
“I’ve taken all three of my brothers out of the mines”, Pedro
says proudly, miming something akin to picking apples from a basket.
Pedro claims that the tours run by ex-miners are, in fact,
perfectly ethical. For one thing, the gifts bought by the tourists help the
often very poor miners to have a higher standard of living. It’s estimated that
the average miner spends 13% of his wages on coca-leaves, an essential aid to
physical work at an altitude of well over 4000m. When you consider
that a day’s supply of coca can be bought for just 5Bs (0.75 USD), it
becomes apparent that these small gifts can make a big difference. His
operation also leaves a proportion of the money they make in the mines
themselves, helping to fund celebrations and giving aid to the families of
injured miners. However, the most important aspect for Pedro is that is
offers a path out.
The path in to the mines of the Cerro Rico is much more frequently trodden than the path out and often
at an alarmingly young age. Getting a job is as easy as turning up and asking
and there are no educational, literacy or class barriers. You certainly don’t
need papers. One miner told a story of a Mexican traveller who was robbed of
his money. He spent three months working in the mines undocumented, until he
had enough to get home. All this is great news if you need a job but the lack
of scrutiny does expose children to a hazardous and potentially deadly
The official age for starting to mine in the Cerro Rico is 18 but next to a set of disused tracks, deep in the Candalaria mine, Alex, 14, sits making
Taco, explosive charges from
dynamite, ammonium nitrate and gravel, packed into newspaper wads. During the
summer holidays, many teenage boys who need a wage to help support their
families venture into the mine, often alongside fathers or older siblings. Alex
wears a shy expression and doesn’t talk much but says he is making the Taco for a team of older miners drilling
ore from a seam, further in. In the Grito
De Piedra (‘Scream Of The Stone’) mine, Samwell, 15, breaks rocks with a
sledgehammer. Alongside his father, Samwell is looking for Zinc ore in the
rubble. He is currently on holiday from school.
The mines are a labyrinth that Daedalus could only have dreamed of
constructing. Interlinking shafts and tunnels, many with no structural support
of either rock or wood, some nearly 500 years old, criss-cross the Cerro Rico. An X-Ray of the mountain
would probably resemble Swiss cheese. Miners, guided by headlamps, experience
and an almost preternatural sense of direction, navigate the maze with
After wending up and down through spaces at times so tight that
they necessitate a commando crawl, climbing and descending sets of rotten
ladders, wobbling in abysses of blackness and dodging mine carts loaded with
tons of ore that careen, loosely guided by their handlers through narrow
tunnels, it is possible to drop from one mine to another. In this case from Candalaria, to the Santa Ellena mine.
At this depth it gets hot, very hot. The thin, oxygen depleted air
of the altitude feels thick and is even harder to breathe as the light from
headlamps reflects off turquoise stalactites of copper sulphate, formed from
centuries of water seepage. Here, teams of men fill huge buckets with ore
ready to be winched up through deep shafts, to the surface. The buckets can
weigh 300Kg and many of these winches are hand operated. The strength it must
take to exert the body so much in such an environment is almost
Despite conditions that many in developed countries would consider
a form of hell, it’s easy to see why there is almost affection for the mines of
the Cerro Rico amongst its workers.
If you have no job and you have the guts, or are desperate enough, the mines
will always provide employment. In Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in
Latin America, without a functioning social safety net, this is not something
to be sniffed at. Even in death, the mines can provide a lifeline for a miner’s
Doña Carmen, who inexplicably wears a broad and constant smile
under her wide-brimmed Andean hat, lives in a small, ramshackle building with
the 3 youngest of her 14 children, outside of the Grito de Piedra mine. A Quechua speaker from a rural village with
no education, when her husband died of silicosis, a lung disease caused by
breathing the dust and particles that choke the underground environment, Doña
Carmen and her family would have been destitute. Instead, they find a living
collecting the scraps of minerals left by the dumper trucks that take the ore
to refineries and are paid by the mining cooperatives to act as night-time
security. It isn’t much but it is, seen through the prism of relativism, a
living. Apparently this is a common setup for the widows of miners.
Self regulated and managed, the cooperatives operate with few but
very well adhered to rules. Once a miner is minted in his own right, a process
that takes between two and six years of doing the worst jobs for other miners,
he can either choose to continue working for others or strike out on his own.
Digging his own tunnels and shafts into the hard rock, if on his first day he
finds a fortune in silver, a miner who has found nothing much for 20 years
would never even thinking of stealing from his colleague’s vein. To do so would
mean dishonour and expulsion from the co-op.
Aside from the means to live, it’s obvious that the other thing
the mines of the Cerro Rico provide
is a community. Miners who are injured and unable to work are often helped
financially by others and in the event of accidents and cave-ins, all the other
miners will down tools to help their compañeros.
This kind of mutual reliance breeds a strong sense of kinship, as does an
understandably high level of superstition and adherence to ritual.
Each of the 180 mines contains a statue of El Tio (The Uncle), built by the miners themselves. Resembling the
devil, although I’m told many times “The Andean devil, not the Christian
devil”, El Tio’s clay body
contains a heart of high quality silver ore, his glass eyes, set in a horned
head, shine the way to the minerals, and the boots on his feet mark him out as
a fellow miner and friend. His huge, engorged phallus is a sign of machismo (no women work in the Cerro Rico) and symbolises his mating
with Pachamama, the Incan
earth-mother-goddess, to produce minerals. El
Tio controls everything underground as Pachamama
does above, and therefore, he must be placated with offerings of coca leaves,
alcohol and cigarettes, placed in and around his outstretched hands and open
mouth. This is done frequently in the hope of good luck but most notably during
a shared Friday afternoon ritual.
An exaggerated equivalent of knocking-off early and going to the
pub, at 2pm on a Friday in the Grito de
Piedra mine, the shapes of the men of the tunnels begin to
coalesce out of the gloom. While it is certainly an excuse to celebrate
surviving another week in the Cerro Rico,
the weekly ritual around El Tio takes
on another layer of meaning both in terms of bonding and spirituality. Bottles
of Potosina, the local lager, and Ceibo, a 96% alcohol made from sugarcane
(that smells like chrome cleaner and would anywhere else almost certainly be
deemed illegal to sell for human consumption), are placed at the feet of the
José Garabito, the current Presidenté
of Grito de Piedra, a
thin, bright eyed and obviously intelligent man in his mid-thirties, pours
out the first round, a task the men share left to right, as everyone lights
cigarettes and dips into bags of coca leaves. The first drops of drink, for El Tio and Pachamama, always hit the ground.
Although the cares of the week are not easily forgotten, two
miners, Moises and Francisco, grumble about the falling price of a certain type
of ore (less than 1000Bs, 145 USD, for 8 tons) and rising government taxes;
after several rounds it all descends into raucous joking and piss-taking.
Miners have a notoriously vicious and dark sense of humour but it’s all done
with a wide grin.
“Sin mineros, no hay
Potosî” or “without miners, you don’t have Potosî” is a
common slogan in the city and for obvious reasons. Even in the modern age, the Cerro Rico employs around 15000 men, at
least 10% of the working age population. It’s difficult to envisage how
the area would survive economically without the industry and the secondary
tourism that it attracts. In the high, cold and windswept environs of this
remote part of South-western Bolivia, there aren’t a lot of other options.
There is some talk of mineral depletion leading to an eventual collapse and
rumours of foreign corporations attempting to buy the rights to top-down mining
are ever present, but for now, the cooperative mines are going nowhere.
It may seem difficult or even callous to regard the mines of
Potosî with anything approaching positivity, there are a myriad of reasons not
to. Child labour, danger, horrendous conditions, injury, death, poverty. These
are serious problems and until the Bolivian government provides adequate,
material support to the mining community to improve their lot, there is little
that will change. On the other hand, the Cerro
Rico provides employment, putting food on the tables of thousands of
families, a secondary tourist economy and the chance of making far more than
the country’s minimum wage. It also fosters a tight-knit and cohesive
community. After nearly 500 years it seems that the Rich Hill still doles out
both hope and hardship to those who live in her shadow.