Wednesday 30 April 2014

Potosí - In the Silver Mines


It's amazing how Potosi, at over 4000m out in the middle of the altiplano was one of the richest and largest cities in the world several hundred years ago.  Why?  The big hill behind the town, the Cerro Rica (Rich Hill) was the source for the bulk of the silver production in the Spanish empire from the mid 1500s on.  The hill is completely perforated with mazes of interconnected mine tunnels and shafts, and is even a few hundred metres shorter than it initially was, for all the ore extracted!

The mining continues today not too differently to how it was done for the last 400 years - it's all manual work.  Health and safety is pretty much absent, and miners seldom live past their forties for all the toxic environments and accidents.  They go in with picks and shovels and the odd stick of dynamite - and come out with bags full of rocks.  Some more successful miners from the cooperatives have wheelbarrows - or even Indiana Jones style wagons that roll at shocking speeds silently through the tunnels.  Watch out!

It was an excellent opportunity to get to go into the mines, first seeing the processing plants then plunging into the mountain with just a head torch and wellies.

The tunnels themselves are tiny, crumbling, wet and of course completely dark.  Too often the wooden supports would fail - and at one point we had to negotiate our way around the rubble of a partial collapse.  The air was both thin (at 4400 metres) and rancid - with the weird chemical stench constricting ones lungs even more.  The miner guide assured us that we'd not suffocate from Carbon Monoxide - but that it was just the smell of the Arsenic and Cyanide. Great.

Fascinating bursts of intricately shapes minerals would appear in seams, as well as odd goopy-looking stalagmites of slime.  I didn't touch anything!  It really felt a bit like a dungeons and dragons dungeon (It was on my mind seeing as I'd just finished Ultima IV on an Apple //e emulator - 29 years after I started!) especially as out of nowhere miners would appear and gruffly shuffle past.  It was an amazing experience - but it wiped me out!

Later that night I got slammed with altitude sickness - all that exertion at 4400m was no good at all for my body.  I felt like hell laying in bed, but a couple of kittens came up out of nowhere to keep me company - which helped immediately.

I didn't know how I felt about going into the mines at first. I was interested in finding out about the mining and especially the working conditions of the miners. However, I didn't want to expose myself to the dire conditions, especially the noxious fumes, and I did think that the tour would be a bit voyeuristic. In the end I am glad I went on the tour. I think it is important to see exactly where our minerals come from and the conditions that people go through to get them.  It was also fascinating to see El Tio- the devil of the mines, who brings the workers more minerals and protects them and who they offer 96% sugar cane alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes to. I was also glad when it was over and I was out into the light. Being inside a mine at 4400m when you have not fully acclimatised to the altitude is hard going and altitude sickness is no fun at all.

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