The Potosi Mines: Dynamite, 96% Alcohol & Coca leaves

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We went on a tour of a fully functioning silver mine in Potosi, Bolivia. This isn’t some leisurely sightseeing trip. We passed miners working in terrible conditions. We went from freezing cold to places so warm I wonder if we had walked into hell.  The few times you can walk upright your back thanks you but most of the time is spent crouching through the tunnels. We followed the train tracks of the rail carts the miners use to pull the raw material out of the mines. Sometimes you are knee deep in water which is better then when it is pure slippery mud or when it is completely dry and the dust flares up making it hard to breathe.

Our guide explained the mining conditions used to better with the state owning the mines. We saw unused water tanks formerly used to sprinkle the mines to keep the dangerous dust to a minimum. There was health-care for the families and it was mandatory for the children to go to school. These days children often follow their father into the mines to help out. They start out working in the mines around 13 and 14 years old. Some try to go to school at night. Most don’t and alcoholism is a big problem. The drink of preference is 96% sugar cane alcohol. It helps them with the cold. Deeper into the mines the men smoke hand rolled cigarettes as the smell of various minerals can be very intense.

The mines are currently run by coops. These are groups of miners that pay to use the mine. The infrastructure in the mine is minimal and safety has no real priority. In the tunnels there are water pipes held up by t-shirts,  electricity cables put together by tape and broken wooden support beams everywhere. There are no engineers in the mountain. There is no overall map. Everything rests with the experience and intuition of the miners.

The miners who work with transporting the raw materials can make 100 Bolivianos ( less than $13 per day). But they have to transport 5 tons of material per day or they don’t get paid and they often have to work very long days to hit this number. The average wage in Bolivia is 800 bolivanos per month and the money does make mining an attractive option.

There are two foreign companies (Canadian and Swiss) that operate in the mines and have much better conditions. Bolivia doesn’t have processes to refine the raw material to anything other than silver. Foreign companies buy the waste material to refine other minerals out of it.

Our guide explained that El Tio “The Devil” is the main deity in the mines. Most miners are catholic but down in the mines there is no religion, there is only El Tio. Our guide also explains that especially during February El Tio gets “hungry” and “eats” the miners that do not respect and bring him offerings. During Carnival El Tio is celebrated and even family members enter the mines to give alms to the Uncle.  His cave is decorated , music is played, there is dancing and much drinking.

Miners are superstitious and if the coca they are chewing doesn’t feel right as they enter the mine they will exit, spit out the coca and get some fresh one. There are 15,000 miners active in Potosi and 500 women but they aren’t allowed to work in the mine since miners believe they would bring bad luck.

There are no lunch breaks, there is only coca. Which relieves the feeling of hunger cold and gives the miners energy. But somehow I don’t believe coca is a very nutritious meal. We came across two miners on their lunch break and they didn’t even have anything to drink, they just had coca leaves.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a real  problem and they carry a special lamp to detect this. Dynamite accidents are also common. Various pieces of dynamite are set but don’t always go off. So when the miners go back to check the results one piece of dynamite can go off killing the miners. The safest would be to let that area of the mine alone for 24 hours but miners pay rent to use the mines and can’t afford to wait. The most dangerous part is Sylicosis, dust Life expentency for the miners is around 40. No masks are used or provided. After this tour it is really difficult to complain about any aspect of your job.

At the end of tour there was a 4-year old boy selling a rock. I imagined what it would be like if in 9 year he would have to go and work into the mines. I felt bad and bought his rock.

Some of the miners would have a quick chat as we passed them but most were quiet and focussed on their work. One asked me how I was doing and I answered “muy calor” he joked back:, haha, si una suana”. Pretty amazing to keep your sense of humour in these depressing conditions.

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The most impressive museum we visited in South America was La Capilla del Hombre ( the Chapel of Men) by the Ecuadorian artist Guayasamin in Quito. His center ceiling piece was dedicated to the slaves who died in the mines of Potosi. It is estimated over 8 MILLION slaves died during the 450 years of existence of the mine. The unfinished piece represents the slaves seeking the light, the way out of the mines and slavery.

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Outside the mines. We were at about 4300 altitude. The mountain reaches 4800 altitude( it used to be over a 100 meters high, but lost height, due to mining). Our guide gave the lady walking down the road some of the coca leaves we bought for the miners. I wasn’t really sure what she was doing so high up the mountain.

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Part of the original entrance built by slaves. It is sad that this segment is one the best constructed parts of the mines.

A miner is repairing one of the containers they use to haul raw material up and down several levels of the mines.

Miners working on the rail carts they use to transport the raw material. There is little space in the tunnels and we often had to squeeze to get passed by the working miners. Safety isn’t s a high priority and such a tour would be unimaginable in most other countries. I asked our guide what the miners thought of tourists wandering around their area of work. She replied they didn’t mind much as part of our tour price goes to their coop fund.

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El Tio (aka the Devil) the ruler in these mines. There are over 600 of these statues spread over the various mines in these mountains. The 15,000 workers pay their respect to El Tio in order to be blessed with the riches of his mines. He is not there as a symbol of protection. His offerings include, coca leaves, alcohol, a lit cigarette in his mouth and once a year on a special feast he gets to enjoy fresh llama blood.

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Much of the crouching we had to do on this 2 hour visit of the mine.

Our guide talking to some miners. This particular section of the mine was incredibly hot. Just standing there and breathing the hot dusty air air was hard. I couldn’t imagine how doing hard physical labour would be. I asked the guy on the right how long he had been working in the mine and he said he had been there for six weeks now.

Note: Due to the extreme hot and cold conditions of the mine my camera had issues with condensation and most of these pictures were taken by Heejung.

Useful information: We booked our tour through our Hostel Compania de Jesus, we paid 60 bolivianos each. This does not include the offerings and gifts to the miners, that was an additional 20 bolivianos. The tour company was right across the street from the hostel.

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7 responses to “The Potosi Mines: Dynamite, 96% Alcohol & Coca leaves

  1. Really intersting piece and I am sure it must have been quite the experience to witness those working conditions and meet actual people that work like that day in, day out.

    I vow to not complain anymore about missing ligthbulbs and air conditioning set at 27 degrees… seems petty.

    • It was really interesting. We were exhausted just from a visit, not even doing any type of work. Plus the mental pressures knowing most people die at a very young age can’t be a big motivator.

  2. Very interesting. So the tour was allowed by the coop fund? They organize it for tourists? Did you have protection against the dust? Because that can be very serious. One of my grandfathers used to work in a coal mine in Germany decades ago. I am sure the conditions were much better than they are today in the mine you visited. However he delevoped some sicknesses like a particular sounding cough due to having a silicosis.

    I always wondered where this cough came from but when I found out I was surprised that even in countries like Germany it had been a problem. Nowadays all coal mines in Germany are closed but you sometimes you can still hear older people coughing like my grandfather had. And then you just know that they had been working in difficult environmental conditions.

    • Tour agencies organize the tours and then pay the coop some money to allow the tours in the mines. We bought some masks against the dust but we lost one mask so I went without it in the tour and at times it was really hard to breathe. I don’t know if the conditions are better now, things are pretty bad. They used to be better with engineers, water spray to keep the dust down and healthcare, but these days, there is none of that.
      The Potosi mines are used as an example on wikipedia on how bad things can be with silicosis with the life expectancy to be 40.

  3. It’s was the same for us. After drinking a lot of this very strong alcohol I was really drunk in the mine (so cool man) 🙂
    Very hard work for the miners but great memories for us

    • Wow, got drunk in the mines? I can’t imagine. I had a lot of the sugar cane alcohol at previous occasions but being buzzed and drunk in the mines would have freaked me out I think or gotten me lost.

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