By Javier Aliaga
POTOSI, Bolivia – A life expectancy of 40 years, poverty and resignation are three corners of a vicious triangle for miners at Bolivia’s Cerro Rico, or “rich mountain,” whose silver financed the Spanish Empire but has done little to improve the lot of local inhabitants.
Most of the miners who work the Cerro Rico, which has 619 pitheads, continue to toil for little pay under extremely unsafe working conditions. The standard of living in Potosi, the southern highland city at the foot of the mountain, remains much the same as it was for miners of previous generations.
Development of the Cerro deposit began in 1545 and over the centuries millions of Indians and African slaves worked under conditions of forced labor, producing tens of thousands of tons silver for the Spanish Empire. Tin and zinc extracted from the mine has become important in more recent times.
Currently, some 10,000 miners – mostly descendants of those initial workers – toil below ground, using dynamite to create tunnels and extracting at least 2,000 tons of mineral-laden earth per day.
Conditions remain brutal, with most of the miners dying of various lung-related illnesses in their 40s, and mine drainage takes a devastating toll on the environment, making Potosi one of the most polluted places on Earth.
The Cerro’s peak is 4,702 meters (15,416 feet) above sea level and 700 meters above Potosi, considered the world’s highest city.
The constant dangers faced by miners and the large numbers of child laborers were apparent during a visit to Cerro Rico’s San Miguel mine, where many who work in its depths pay homage to El Tio, the lord of the underworld, in exchange for protection.
Many of the miners say with resignation that they can only expect to live 40 years due to illnesses such as silicosis, caused by breathing in silica dust or asbestos, whose tiny fibers can get stuck in clothing, hair and shoes as one passes through the tunnels.
Ivan Condori, a 36-year-old driller who rose to the position of assistant mine foreman and once earned the monthly equivalent of between $424 and $565, said his earnings have since been cut in half due to a decline in mineral prices.
He said he knows the danger he faces, but that he puts his “faith in El Tio so that nothing happens inside the mine and in God on the outside” so he can outlive the normal life expectancy without giving up his self-sacrificing occupation.
Another man, 29-year-old miner-turned tour guide Antonio Ferrufino, said while making an offering of coca, tobacco and alcohol to two clay devils that El Tio is “master, owner and lord of the mine shafts, minerals and the life of the miners.”
Most of the workers are unskilled laborers, many of them adolescents, who earn $7 a day to push tons of earth in wagons inside El Cerro.
They do their work in spaces that are filled with air-borne pollutants and have puddles of toxic water on the ground; the tunnels, meanwhile, are sustained by old beams that miraculously prevent the mine shafts from caving in.
Andres Cano, 45, said it is better to earn less than to work in areas that are contaminated or located deep inside the mountain, but he acknowledged that those jobs are preferred by young people precisely because the pay is better.
“There are young people who go in there to work at age 20 and in four or five years they’re barely (standing up),” he said.
With primitive mining methods still in use at El Cerro, fatal accidents are frequent even if miners manage to avoid succumbing to black lung disease by age 40.
“Our people don’t have much hope of overcoming this situation. It’s the weight of tradition that makes us keep living in the same way and makes us say that’s how we’ve been and that’s how we’ll always be. It’s resignation. I call it the tyranny of resignation,” the Catholic bishop of Potosi, Walter Perez, told Efe.
The prelate also called on business leaders in Potosi who have made a fortune at Cerro Rico to invest in the city and not in other regions of Bolivia, with the aim of creating alternate employment for young residents.
“What’s regrettable is that people who achieve considerable wealth invest it outside Potosi. They build buildings, hotels and have sports teams ... but in other places,” he said.
The bishop said the issue of the lack of investment in Potosi is a perplexing subject, one connected to the age-old question of why the silver wealth extracted from the Cerro over a period of 464 years has not made Potosi one of the leading cities of Bolivia and elevated the standard of living of the population. EFE