Down into the mines

Thursday, January 19, 2012
Uyuni, Bolivia
Potosi is one of the world's highest cities at 4,090 metres (13,420 ft). Towering above it is Cerro Rico ("rich mountain"), a mountain popularly conceived of as being "made of" silver ore. Without this mountain Potosi would not exist. It has always dominated the city. Cerro Rico was much higher. Was it 400 metres higher? However today, out of the 96 minerals, only zinc, tin, lead as well as silver are mined.
No factories are in Potosi so this single mountain provides the majority of work for the miners and local farmers who down their tools and work as miners when the ore price is high and gives them a better income. Currently approximately 15,000 of Potosi 200,000 population are miners.

At last the opportunity to descend beneath Cerro Rico.

First to the street where the miners buy all their supplies: dynamite, really strong cigarettes, coca leaves and almost 100 per cent alcohol. Each week a miner would spend on average BS/-800 on baking soda, 100 metre of fuse, 100 detonators, 27 TNT sticks and 40 kg of ammonium nitrate. They have to pay for everything themselves. Imported from Northern Peru, the coca leaves which the miners nearly continually chewed to give them energy. They also pick up their recharged miner's lights from here.

Then after being outfitted with our helmets, lights, outer protective clothing, gumboots, armed with a small bag of coca leaves and bottle of soft drink (B/-10) to give to the miners we were to meet, it was up to the mine entrance.

Crouching and bending low - not good for people of my height - it was along the often water filled narrow path walking between the narrow guage railway lines listening for the oncoming mine cart full of ore being pushed by the helpers so that we could step out of their way. Hitting ones head on the overhanging cables and ventilation pipes was a common occurrence for me!

It is definitely not a place for the faint hearted as the only light was from your and the others helmets.
Stopping at a side room used as their smoko, we learnt a bit about the life underground.

Cerro Rico has nearly 500 km of narrow tunnels and shafts which honeycomb under the mountain. With 1,000 entrances, currently only 470 are open. Forty eight co-operates currently work this mountain paying the government their dues for this privilege.

Miners work 8 - 10 hour days for 5 1/2 days.

The miners work on different levels ... very much a pecking order:
- Level 1 are the miners' helpers. They undertake jobs like taking the ore out of the mine. BS/-100 to 400 per day could be earnt.

- On level 2 a miner could as part of a team extract 6 tons of ore a day. If mixed and of a poorer quality, it would be more ore (8 tons) to be move out by their helpers. They need to pay their level 1 helpers, equipment, rent, food etc from their income. BS/-5,000 a week was mentioned.

- Then up the next to level 3 is where the co-op will take 30 to 40% of the weekly production as their commission.

As a comparison, an average worker in Potosi would earn just BS/-800 per week.

Then we came across Luis, a university student who is earning some extra money in hissemester break. He demonstrated the traditional way of hit and then turn the metal chisel into the resulting hole which he will later put the explosive. This slower method gives them a longer life expectancy than the modern method of using pneumatic drills (dust in the lungs). Pneumatic drill produces a much lower mixed quality as well. So does the miner go for bulk or quality?

Further along we waited to see the ore in buckets that was being lifted from 100 metres below up to this level for later transportation along the narrow tracks to the mine entrance.

Our final stop was to meet Tio aka, the devil who is considered to be the spirit of the mines. Miners give Tio weekly offerings of alcohol, coca leaves, money and other things in exchange for him giving his protection in the mines.

Soon time to exit and fresh air. No, not a life style that I would like to lead.

It is saddening to hear that young teenagers are still working away in the mine. The average lifespan is very young with serious threats to safety everywhere. This short time underground was an eye opening experience. It's not comfortable working down below in the wet and darkness, it's dangerous but was a humbling experience. Part of me is saying why not simply open cast mine this hill top down to extract the remaining minerals?

Lunch (make your own roll from ingredients brought at the local supermarket) and then at 1 pm time to leave Potosi for Uyuni just 4 hours away. We opted to pay a little bit extra each BS/-220 and got our own bus. This saved us 1 to 2 hours from using the local bus which would have stopped along the route.

The road has been undergoing for some 6 years now realignment and widening and once finished will be great. Being built for the local mining industry.

Approaching Uyuni, it felt like arriving at a western frontier town and I half expected the tumble weed to come sweeping across the sandy plains. Instead it was hectares of discarded used and old plastic bags which littered the landscape having got caught on the low scrub.

The part of town where the Hotel Samay Wasi is located was deserted and I wondered if anyone actually lived here. The streets were wide with railway tracks running down the centre. Trains were heard very early the next morning, well before the sun rose!

After unpacking, we had time to wander and to my surprise saw the many people at the lively street market in the middle of the town. I am sure there were more goods on sale out on the street than in the stores.

A "Minuteman Revolutionary Pizza" Llama spicy pizza was my dinner tonight. This kind of out of the wayplace inside the Tonito Hotel well deserves its write ups.
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