The wealth of Potosí in Bolivia first became known in 1545 when a group of Spanish conquistadores settled there to exploit the treasure preserved in its subsoil. Eighty years down the line, it was the biggest and richest in the Americas, with a population of 160,000, larger than that of Paris, Rome, London or Seville.
Its fame travelled the world. It had the largest silver mine in the world and it&’s been estimated that some 50,000 tons of silver have been extracted from its veins — enough to build a bridge all the way to Spain. For the gentlefolk of Potosí, everything was made of silver but the indigenous communities were reduced to slavery and inhumane conditions.
After two centuries of exploitation, the silver began to run out; those who could left Potosí and the entire area fell into oblivion. In 1987, the city was declared a Unesco heritage site, but all that remained were ghosts of the wealth of yore. From each street of Potosí, you now can always see the Cerro Rico, the 4,800-metre “man-eating” mountain, its imposing bulk reddish and pock-marked, strewn with tiny human shapes hurrying to pierce it again and with trucks making their way up and down to carry away its most valuable rocks.
Some 6,000 miners are camped out near the top of the mountain and live on the silver, as well as zinc, copper, lead and tin that it still provides. They work in the artisan mode, with crude instruments and a store of knowledge handed down the ages. Theirs is perhaps the world&’s most terrible occupation, not only tiring but deadly. It may kill at any moment, because there is no safety, but it also kills over time since in the jaws of the mountain determine that every breath is a step closer to silicosis. Accompanied by a guide and a group of miners, I visit a few of the holes opened over the centuries in the Cerro Rico, where, in spite of the great heat outside, the temperature falls below zero after a few hundred metres. Some stalactites make it difficult to pass, while the water is ankle-deep. As we progress, the relatively easy sections alternate with others where it is necessary to hobble almost on our knees, since the shafts, little more than a metre high, become ever smaller and narrower.
If you stop here, panic begins to get the upper hand. Apart from the faint glow of the helmet-lamp, everything around is pitch dark and you feel immersed in total silence. Now and again, the surrounds are suddenly broken by a cart weighing a ton or more, piled high with minerals, the wheels having been rendered almost unserviceable over the years, and four workers are needed to drag it along. You have to move carefully then, feeling for side passages or flattening your body against the wall, more than seems possible to make way for the cart.
We press on, and in a few minutes the temperature suddenly shoots up. It is above 400o Celsius — a sudden, excruciating change. The ground beneath us is no longer wet but parched. The air becomes oppressive for lack of oxygen. Dust is everywhere: it gets into your throat and lungs and eyes but you have to keep going a few dozen metres to the end, where loud sounds now clatter around you.
Here are the drillers, the men with the hardest job — they have to bore into the walls and rip them open with home-made dynamite. They are working almost naked, in the most appalling conditions. Some take the lift to the first circle of hell, descending 240 metres into tunnels barely wide enough for their bodies to head off in search of a vein of zinc, tin or lead, hoping to carry as much as possible to the surface in return for their weekly pay.
It is a long way back. The cold seeps into your bones and you notice it more than when you were going the other way. When a light finally glows in the distance, you think of the exit as a return to life. It has seemed an eternity, but the clock is there to remind you that only three hours have passed. The strong sun is imparting light and heat, while other miners are arriving to take their turn inside. Looking at their kind but toil-hardened faces, you cannot help wondering how it is possible to spend every day for 30 years in that inferno.
Although Bolivia is the world’s seventh largest producer of silver and lead, its economy is still marked by a lack of adequate means of subsistence. Some 90 per cent of the miners work in cooperatives without job protection or social security and yet perform only 20 per cent of the extraction work. The sector is dominated by foreign multinationals and only scraps of the multimillion-dollar earnings remain behind. The demands of the people necessitate an ecologically sustainable modernisation that should respect the choices of the indigenous communities living in the territory.
Potosí in Bolivia had the oldest mining complex in the world before the Spanish conquistadores almost pillaged it all.