Thursday, 2 February 2012

The poor old devils in Potosi

I wasn't going to do a tour of the mines - the LP warns you of extreme conditions like no air, darkness, lack of safety in descending etc, but the guy in our hostel was an ex-Miner and had good reports so I found myself suited and booted and ready to see the mines of Potosi.

     Potosi is where silver was mined years ago from the Cerro Rico hill when it was discovered by the Spaniards, and back in its day, was the richest, largest city in South America. Millions of African and (later) Indigenous slaves died in the mines extracting silver. Now there is none left, but there are other minerals like zinc here to be had, working underground so as not to destroy the UNESCO protected hill. The tour began in the market with how to light dynamite, then we bought gifts for the miners (who work in a cooperative - which isn't as great as it sounds) and we went in.
     Not only is it freezing, it's also pitch black, and you have to tread very carefully so as not to fall into the huge holes that are everywhere. There are 400 explosions a day, and 2 to 3 miners die per month. Before, this figure was 5 to 6 per week. Welcome to the world of the Bolivian miners.
     We saw 2 miners working, pushing a cart of 1 tonne of rock along the tracks. "Mind your feet," Antonio, the guide said, "lots of people have lost their feet this way." When the men passed, he continued to tell us they would live until about 35 years of age. Each of the men had a cheek bulging with a ball of coca leaves, and their teeth covered with a green film. Antonio told us several times of the importance of coca: it keeps them going with energy, it suppresses their appetite, and it marks the time. They chew leaves for 4 hours, then break, spit the ball out and put a fresh ball in for the remaining 4 hours. That way they break up the day and keep track of time. Why don't they have lunch? I thought. "Why don't they eat, I bet you're thinking," said Antonio on cue. "Because, with food in their bellies, they will have two problems: deadly toxins in their lungs, and in their stomachs." The air is thick with toxins, and asbestos is everywhere. The walls and roof of the mines glisten with beautiful stalactites of asbestos. And these toxins cause the fatal disease silicosis which kills the miners one by one.
     When we were buying gifts I decided not to buy cigarettes so as not to support an unhealthy habit. When I saw these men literally breaking their backs, inhaling toxins that are killing them, and chewing coca that is rotting their teeth, I realised the cigarettes are the least of their worries. It was hilariously sad.
     In the mines we saw several statues made of clay and earth. These are the devils worshipped by the miners, called "Tios".

This comes from when slaves worked the mines and the Spaniards told them that if they didn't extract minerals the devil would take them and they would never see daylight again. The devil slowly became their friend and they now worship and adore them, bringing them gifts such as cigarettes to smoke, 96% pure alcohol, and coca leaves which they sprinkle on the devils' hands, feet and penis. In return for these things they ask for the following: strong hands to work and push the carts, feet that carry them out of the mine alive, and fertility of the mountain to produce minerals, as well as their own fertility to produce more children to continue working the mines.
     Their motto: "For you today, for me tomorrow."