Dynamite, Death and Devils Down Bolivia's Silver Mines

Helen Livingstone, DPA, October 18, 2011

Dynamite and a bottle of Ceibo, with a 96-per-cent proof alcohol content, might not seem the most compatible of gifts -- but it is what tourists are advised to take with them on a visit to the silver mines of Bolivia's Cerro Rico.

The mountain and its treasures once made Potosi -- one of the world's highest cities at almost 4,100 metres above sea level -- the Spanish empire's most valuable prize, although at unimaginable human cost.

"Eight million people have died down here," says 30-year-old former miner Reynaldo Ramirez Uzeda.

He is referring to the indigenous workers and African slaves who worked here during the colonial period, many as a result of forced recruitment programmes instigated by the infamous Viceroy Francisco de Toledo in the 16th century, who wanted to maximize silver production for his royal masters.

Today, Cerro Rico towers above the now impoverished city as a constant reminder of its ugly past. The sides of the mountain are pockmarked with mines, and centuries of waste from processing minerals spill down its sides.

Around 11,000 people still mine Cerro Rico's depths, 1,000 of whom are children as young as 12. They work in conditions and use methods which have not greatly changed from when silver was first discovered at the site in 1545.

The miners no longer look for silver, which started to dry up at the end of the 19th century, but primarily for other minerals -- tin, zinc, copper and lead.

Despite the dangers, of which dynamite explosions are just one, ex-miners are now taking small groups on tours of the tunnels which stretch for kilometres underneath the mountain -- equipped with gifts to sweeten their reception by those who work the seams.

One of those guides is Ramirez, who spent three years working as a miner. His father died of alcohol poisoning when he was 44, after working for more than 20 years in Cerro Rico.

"My mother used to fight with him all the time about his drinking," says Ramirez. "He used it as a refuge from the daily drudgery of the mine."

An older brother also died at the age of 16, when he fell down a 100-foot-deep shaft.

These family tragedies are a drop in the ocean. Most miners die ten to 15 years before the national average, which is 60 for today's 20-year-old Bolivians, according to the World Health Organization.

Last year, 22 people died in accidents at Cerro Rico, although the most common cause of death is lung disease as a result of breathing in the toxic dust which pervades the mine.

"At the beginning I was afraid, but not any more," says 35-year-old Don Mario, a father of three who has been working there since he was 20. "You get used to it."

Groups of miners sit outside in the cold sunshine, preparing for their shifts. Their heads are bowed as they silently chew coca leaves.

"The miners don't eat a lot before they go underground, coca is better," says Ramirez. The leaves, which are the raw material for cocaine, have been chewed by peoples indigenous to the Andes for thousands of years, as a medicine and mild stimulant.

"It makes you forget headaches, altitude sickness. It's good for your stomach and it makes you feel strong," says Ramirez.

The entrance to the Rosario mine, with its original 16th-century stonework, is flooded with dirty water. Further down the labyrinth of tunnels, some of which are no more than a metre high, the water gives way to an uneven dusty floor and the temperature climbs from 10 degrees Celsius to about 30.

At several intervals, alcoves open out onto shrines to Tio Jorge, whose plaster statue is an effigy of the lord of the mines, owner of its minerals, according to Ramirez.

In colonial times the Spanish told the miners that he was God, or "Dios," which the native Quechuans couldn't pronounce. Instead they called him "Tio," meaning uncle in Spanish, and believed him to be the devil -- the mines were by all accounts the closest thing to hell on Earth.

The miners still come to honour Tio Jorge on the first and last Friday of each month, to gain his protection. His blackened face is crowned with coloured streamers, his mouth stuffed with coca leaves and cigarettes. He even sports a pair of leather knee pads -- a relic of the African slaves who were much taller than the natives and had more trouble crawling through the tunnels.

Before taking a swig themselves, the miners sprinkle two drops of Ceibo on the floor in front of him -- one for Mother Earth and one for Tio.

"I'm glad I came but it's certainly not an experience I'd want to repeat," says one 31-year-old Australian visitor after trying the brew. "It does give you a lot of respect for the people who work here."

So does it bother the miners to be looked at like animals in a zoo?

"I don't mind the tourists," says Don Leonardo, who has worked down the mine for 20 years, as he helps himself to a handful of coca leaves from a bag proffered by Ramirez. "They're quiet and they bring gifts. It's a distraction for us."

"I like that they see the reality we face down here," adds Don Mario, who is chiselling a hole into the side of the tunnel, so he can blow open a tin seam with his gift of dynamite. "It's not just any trip to a museum."