Friday, March 18, 2016

Where Silver Comes From

The residents of Potosi, Bolovia have been mining silver since 1545. The Spanish ruled the area back then and minted their silver coins in Potosi. It was a very profitable use of slavery for Spain.

Since then over 8 million slaves and miners have died in the mines and in the related facilities of Potosi. The Spaniards raped the indigenous women and put the boys into the mines when they were strong enough around age 14. Many of them died by 17 from collapsing tunnels and poisonous gases.

8 million dead, mostly over a span of 300 years until Bolivian independence. That comes out to 73 deaths per day for 300 years.

In the first couple hundred years they extracted a lot of silver. They say they extracted enough silver to build a silver bridge from Bolivia to Spain.

They also say they could build another bridge from Bolivia to Spain built from the bones of the dead miners.

Today the mine is nearly as dangerous as it was 400 years ago. 17 miners died in 2015. They don't have very good facilities because the mountain has already yielded much of its riches, making every ounce of silver harder and harder to obtain. Since there isn't much wealth they can't afford much fancy safety gear.

This mountain is riddled with  mines that have been blasted inside of it for over 400 years.


However, for this city of 250,000 at an elevation over 13,000' in Bolivia, it is all they have.

Why Tour a Mine?

This morning I toured one of the active mines, but I did not go without much debate. I wondered if it was some sort of exploitation -- tourists gawking at miners busting their ass every day for around $400-$600/month. The guidebooks explained that it really is dangerous and you need to be vigilant while in the mine. Another traveler told me an Italian woman got whacked in the head by a fast-moving mining car last week.

I decided to go because I want to better understand where my laptop and cell phone come from. I want to better understand the people who toil so that I can throw money around whenever a new piece of electronics strikes my fancy.

Miners are Sole-Proprietors

The mines are now owned by co-ops of the miners. In this mountain there are 10,000 workers and dozens of different mines, each controlled by a co-op. The miners are sole proprietors so they have to buy all their own gear and handle their own health care expenses.

Part of being a guest in the mine is bringing gifts to the miners. Each of us on the tour brought gifts of dynamite, fuses, soda or water, and coca leaves. The miners can't eat normal food during their 8-hour shifts in the mines because the food would get dusty and then they'd be eating the dust that would eventually kill them. They just chew on coca leaves, instead. Coca leaves are popular in the high altitudes of South America. They help deal with the elevation by acting as a minor stimulant. And yes, this is the same plant that cocaine is eventually derived from. But cocaine is only created after significant chemical processing.

Tourism exists here because the miners benefit financially from allowing visitors to watch them work. The two miners that my group visited today get visited on most days by tour groups. Therefore a noticeable portion of their daily expenses are paid for by the tourists.

The Mines

This is the view back into town from the mountain mines.


Heading into the mine we are all suited up with hardhats, headlamps and facemasks...

This is just like in the movies. I was in a perpetual crouch, rarely being able to stand to my full six foot height. Most Bolivians seem to stand between 4'10" and 5'6".


The tunnels are barely wide enough for narrow rail tracks and the little mining cars full of rock that come whizzing at high speeds, pushed furiously by miners who don't want anyone getting in their way. Here my group of 5 visitors sucks in our bellies and ducks into a small alcove to allow a car to go by. This short video is best viewed with sound.


The Miners

Oscar is 30. He's been working in the mine for 10 years. He has 3 children. For 8 hours every day he toils alone, in the dark, manually creating dynamite holes with a hammer and chisel. In one day he will chisel 1 or 2 holes and make 1 dynamite blast. Then he has to manually carry all the rock out by first worm-crawling on his stomach out into a main tunnel and then out of the mine to the production facility.
Oscar doesn't want his two young sons to work in the mine, but sons have been following their fathers there for over 400 years.

Tio is the devil and the miners god of the underworld. Here is a shrine to him, decorated after Carnaval celebrations. My tour guides flank him.

After 2 hours in the mine I was damn happy to get out into the fresh air. The tour involved running to get out of the way of speeding mine cars, worm-crawling on my belly through small openings in the rock, climbing up steep rock walls, wearing a face mask so as to not breathe in the noxious dust, and bumping my helmet-clad head on low ceilings more times than I want to admit.

Here I am with Ronaldo, our guide. He used to work in the mines but lucked in to this tour guide gig.

This mine is slowly dying. Eventually it won't be worth it to keep digging and this town of 250,000 will be in deep trouble.

It was a somber experience, but this is where silver come from.




1 comment:

samh said...

Solid stuff, Kirk. Keep us thinking up here in the land of plenty. Thank you.