Isidro, though only eighteen years of age, was the leader of our group on account of having worked in the mine for eight years. I had to pinch myself. Here I was, close to five thousand metres above sea level, in Potosí, Bolivia, with no experience, working as a miner inside the notorious ´Mountain that eats men alive´. It is a world where as many as eight million Andean Indians have died since the Spanish discovered its silver in 1545, and where the average life of a miner today, is thirty-eight years of age. Six months later, I spent a day at a ´comparative´ mine in Rosebery, Tasmania, to see how a miner´s life in Australia differs to the lives of those working underground in one of the poorest countries in the Americas.
Studying Latin American history, I discovered Potosí. It altered my perception of the world. This is a place so fundamentally important in human history I should have already known about it, but it didn’t feature in my Euro-centric education, despite arguably influencing Europe´s development more than any other city.
After a couple of days in Potosí, I had befriended miners, offered my labour for free, and with that I was part of a team, working in the dusty, crumbling tunnels of Cerro Rico (Rich Hill). My lack of experience meant working with the third (lowest) class miners. In Rosebery, my chances of working were non-existent, even getting a guided tour required some string pulling, some very helpful people at the mine, and several weeks wait.
At eight o´clock in the morning, having walked to a mud brick hut outside La Mina Poderosa (The Powerful Mine) with the Andean sun blazing down, I was briefly introduced to the three miners with whom I was to work. The three men stared at me, one side of their faces bulging with coca leaves, no doubt wondering why this tall white guy would want to work with them, for free.
At eight o´clock in the morning, outside the Rosebery mine on Tasmania´s west coast, the sun was doing its best to dissolve the mist and melt the ice from the winter night. Before I could enter the offices my blood alcohol and hydration levels were checked. I was then taken to the General Manager´s office to discuss why I was visiting, the history of the mine, and of course, occupational health and safety.
The mine in Rosebery is around seventy years old and today, like Potosí, produces approximately two-thirds zinc. The mines of Potosí however, produced predominantly silver for three hundred and fifty years, tin for another hundred years, until today’s domination of zinc.
The Incas knew of the conical hill nestled between mountains, they called it Sumaj Orko, or handsome mountain. Upon seeing it in 1462, Incan leader Huayna Cápaj – stunned by its colour and form – suspected it may contain precious stone or metals. Although precious metals were not used commercially by the Incas, they were of vital importance to the worship of their gods. When his miners began to pick at the rock a great voice speaking in Quechua bellowed from below, “This is not for you; God is keeping these riches for those who come from afar.”
God kept his word. A few years later, in 1545, an Indian named Huallpa spent a cold night on the mountainside in search of an escaped llama. By the flickering light of his fire, he saw a vein of pure silver glimmering in the night. Within no time, the Spanish, who had conquered the region a few years earlier, had learnt of the find, renamed the peak Cerro Rico and begun to extract the silver.
My three colleagues and I climbed down into the depths using a rickety homemade wooden ladder.La Mina Poderosa began in the Seventeenth Century. The Indians, who were forced underground by the Spanish, feared they were violating the world of a different god, that of the underworld. I too, felt I was entering a world I didn´t belong.
I couldn’t help but feel the presence of death. The myriad dark dusty tunnels of La Mina Poderosa have likely consumed thousands of lives. In fact, the pink mountain, Cerro Rico, is the site of mass genocide. The ´mud-faced peoples´, who for centuries were enslaved in these mines, were brought from all over today´s Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, and beyond. Thousands of Africans were also shipped in chains across the Atlantic and around the freezing tip of Cape Horn before being forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach the mines of Potosí. This wretched traffic however, slowed as it became clear they were not as useful as the Indians because they were too tall for the tiny tunnels, and generally didn´t survive the cold climate and high altitude.
The indigenous Andeans enslaved in the mines were referred to as mitayos because they were required to pay a mita, a tribute to the Spanish Crown, which was generally paid in the form of forced labour. On behalf of the Spanish Empire, this immense production of silver, fertilised by so many Andean souls, funded the birth of European capitalism.In 1550, Dominican monk Domingo de Santo Tomás described Cerro Rico as ´´the mouth of hell that swallowed Indians by the thousands every year.”
By 1573, Potosí had one hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants, making it as big as London and bigger than Madrid, Paris and Rome. It was one of the world´s biggest and richest cities. In the nineteenth century, also due to its mineral wealth, Tasmania´s west coast was expected to create one of Australia´s major cities, but it never quite happened.
Above ground, the miners of Potosí overwhelmingly believe in the Catholic God, but below ground El Tio demands their faith. There is a shrine to El Tio within every mine in Potosí. His figure is moulded from earth inside the mine, by a shaman. El Tio too, is a miner. He wears boots and has a bulge of coca leaves in one cheek. To see him conjures images of the devil, with penetrating marble gaze and horns, he can choose to give miners a rich vein or take their lives. To all miners, the ritual of ch´alla is an important ritual to give thanks to El Tio for what they have received and to ask for protection. They make offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes every Friday. The closest thing to this ritual in the Rosebery mine is the occupational health and safety routine. Though more a ritual of science than faith, it is equally strict and all mining activity is subordinate to it.
For a miner in Potosí, the day begins with a large breakfast, normally rice with chicken and vegetables. Miners then work for eight to twelve hours without any food, only chewing coca leaves. The coca leaf is central to routine and ritual, and it helps to suppress hunger, exhaustion and the effect of altitude. The Rosebery mine has underground canteens where miners can eat and rest in comfort.
All the work below ground in Potosí is physically demanding. My team spent our time shoveling and hauling rubble and pushing heavy carts along broken rails. Despite the cold, after an hour of this, I was soaked with sweat and gasping for oxygen the altitude wouldn´t allow me. My throat was so caked in fine dust, I couldn´t swallow. This dust causes silicosis of the lungs, and kills two miners a week in Potosí.
I felt entirely safe in the Rosebery mine. From the comfort of a new four-wheel drive, we travelled deep into the mine, around fourteen kilometres by road and one and a half kilometres below the surface. Plenty of fresh air circulates through the huge six metre diameter tunnels. Much work is done by operating ´joy-sticks´ from air-conditioned cabins, and tunnels are stabilised from a safe distance by operating a machine that attaches steel rods and bracing. Even the huge trucks can be operated by remote control from the surface. Every area that needs to be, is well lit, and feels like a human environment.
In contrast, the only light inside the heart of Cerro Rico comes from headlamps, which illuminate the lung-killing dust and guide you through the tunnels that honeycomb the mountain and sprout off in every direction. The tunnels vary in width and height, though on average, they are about a metre wide, and about a foot less than my six feet of height.
Thankfully, after about five hours of exhausting work, the rubble from the overhead chute ran out. We went to a short dead end tunnel and began talking and chewing coca leaves. Suddenly, there was a huge dynamite blast that felt only metres away, closely followed by another fifteen or so. I hated this. It felt far too close. My eardrums felt as if they would burst. With each blast the rock walls enclosing us shook so much that the bags of coca leaves shuffled across the ground and small rocks showered our helmets.
I thought about it all collapsing on top us, as happens to around forty people a year, but my compañeros didn´t seem the slightest bit afraid. In Rosebery, not only does sophisticated engineering go into each blast, but no one is below ground when they occur.
After the explosions stopped, Andres, one of the drillers, who was so caked in dust he was just two red eyes and half a set of teeth, took me to see the blast. It was only about thirty metres away. The fumes and dust smelt and tasted lethal. Andres was very pleased to show me the glittering vein of zinc freshly exposed.
The Rosebery mine extracts approximately seven hundred and fifty thousand tonnes a year, while Potosí extracts about a million. Yet, there are around fifteen thousand miners working in Potosí, compared to just four hundred in Rosebery. That equates to twenty eight Bolivian miners for every miner in Rosebery, for the same volume of mineral extracted.
The international market has not been kind to Potosí, allowing it to fund Europe’s expansion whilst keeping it poor. It is no less cruel today. Wages are fragile, dancing in parallel with global prices for minerals. Whilst the mine in Rosebery is not removed from global markets, the wages and conditions for its workers are.
In Rosebery, the lowest mining salary is around eighty thousand dollars a year. Given the average life span, a miner in Potosí would need to start working full time at the age of twelve to earn Rosebery´s base annual salary in a life time. Put another way, an hour of safe work in a Tasmanian mine is worth almost a week of dangerous work in a Bolivian mine. A third class miner in Potosí earns around ten dollars a day, thanks to a reasonably strong price globally for zinc at the moment.
In Australia, a miner can quickly set themselves up for a financially secure life. In Bolivia, miners can work from childhood and still struggle to pay for their children´s upbringing and education, before their lungs dissolve and their children are left fatherless.
In Rosebery, as in Potosí, there are mining families within a mining community. There are several third, and even a fourth generation miner in the Rosebery mine. Only El Tio knows how many continuous generations of miners could be discovered in Potosí.
Whether Bolivia or Tasmania, mining communities are strong and proud. Regardless of geographical separation, there is a bond between miners. When I went down the mines in Potosí, the miners talked of their concern for those trapped in Chile. At the same time, miners in Rosebery were donating to the rescue of those same Chilean miners.
As we sat in that dead end tunnel after the earth stopped shaking and Isidro and his mates talked to me of beautiful women and football, I couldn´t help thinking how much shorter their lives would be than my own. These proud men sacrifice their lives for their families. Isidro, like so many others, started working in the mines as a young boy due to the death of his mining father. His greatest hope for his unborn children is that they don’t have to follow his footsteps in to ´the Mountain that eats men alive´.