The Devil in the Mines of Potosi

See all the Potosi pictures here…

Diego Huallpa had searched everywhere for the lost llama but there was still no sign of him. ‘Stupid animal,’ Diego thought, ‘and he was just about ready for market! My father will kill me’. By this point he was far from home, the sun had set and so Diego decided to build a fire to keep himself warm. As the fire grew hot, Diego noticed as a shiny trickle oozing from the ground beneath the fire. ‘Holy Incan Sun God!’ He exclaimed, ‘Those strange-talking, bearded white folk are going to be SO happy with me – they love this stuff!’ It was 1544 and Diego Huallpa, a local Inca had just discovered the wealth of silver that lay beneath Cerro Rico (or Rich Hill) as it came to be known. And indeed the Spanish Conquistadors were so grateful that they called in more of their friends, enslaved the locals and began hollowing out the mountain.

For the following few centuries, the mines of Potosi bankrolled the Spanish Monarchy and were so productive that it was a popular boast that a silver bridge could have been built all the way from Potosi to Spain and still produced even more silver to carry across it. Besides 12 hour shifts, the working conditions of the mines were atrocious; many perished from accidents, silicosis (basically a seizing up of the lungs) and from working with dangerous materials, such as mercury, in the smelting mills. It’s been estimated that from 1545 to 1825 as many as eight million Africans and indigenous Bolivians died from the appalling conditions.

At it’s height, the population of Potosi swelled to almost 200,000 but as the silver dried up and the international trading price dropped, the town was dealt a blow from which it never fully recovered. These days the town has about 10,000 inhabitants and most of the remaining mines are ‘cooperative’ , meaning that they are run by the miners. Some silver is still found but most of their profits come from zinc and lead. The conditions have improved only mildly since colonial times and the same driving force pervades in the minds of the miners: ‘I might be the lucky one to discover that next vein!’; a far more optimistic view than considering the odds of your early demise by silicosis. But enough of the theoretical descriptions; when I hit Potosi I found a guide that would take me deep into the mountain, where Tio (aka the Devil), not God, was the boss.

Truthfully I felt lucky to even get to Potosi. A week earlier the nations buses had been on strike, lamenting the addition of a new law that would mean suspension of a driver’s license if they were caught driving under the influence. I’d already known that drunk driving was a problem in Bolivia since the salt flats of Uyuni where one of the drivers of the 4x4s got so drunk that a tourist had had to drive for the rest of the day. In any case, the striking bus drivers were trying to push an addendum to the new law, which meant implementing a ‘three strikes and your out’ policy. Amazing idea you idiots. But it was only 8am and as we bobbed and weaved up the mountain our driver looked passably sober.

After emerging from a nondescript shack where we were given boots, coveralls and some stylish hard hats with attached lamps, the first stop that our cheery guide-cum-miner Efra took us to was the miner’s market. Here he suggested that we purchase some gifts for the miners whom we were about to visit. Just your basic supplies: bags of coca leaves ($1 each), a few sticks of dynamite ($3 each) and some bottles of soda (the miners didn’t eat while underground). He was annoyed by the fact that the guide book suggest bringing cigarettes and alcohol as the miners already had lung problems and seemed to enjoy the 98% proof booze a little too much without our help. Instead I decided to buy an extra stick of dynamite, a detonator, fuse and a bag of fertilizer which Efra promised would make a better explosion: “This one is for the miners!” And he threw it on the ground. “But this one,” he said with a smile, “is going to be for us!” And he put it in his mouth and bit down on it.

The group of about eight tourists got back in the bus, gifts in hand and the heaving vehicle continued its laborious ascent up the thin cobbled streets. Potosi is above 4000m, and the summit of Cerro Rico significantly above that. I was beginning to get another piercing headache from the altitude so I followed the lead of the locals and pulled some coca leaves from the transparent green sack that I’d bought at the market. I pulled the thick stems off and pushed the leaves into my mouth one at a time, chewing for a bit and then gathering the bitter pulp into a ball in my cheek. It had the sort of medicinal intensity where you think ‘this must do something!’

Efra then took us to an ore processing plant, which looked like it hadn’t changed much since the 16th century. These days the pulleys were powered by electricity instead of mules and slaves, but the rest of the mechanics were probably still the same; paddles skimmed foam off the top of sedimentary containers and little circular wheels picked up chemicals with which it doused the ore, helping it separate. One ton of ore might get you 400 Bolivianas worth of minerals these days – just over USD$50. We handed some bags of coca leaves to the workers, one of whom stared lecherously at this one French girl and said something, certainly inappropriate, in the indigenous language of Quecha, still widely used by miners. They both laughed.

Eventually we turned off the main road onto a little dirt path that led past a few mines. Amazingly, even though Cerro Rico has passed it prime, there are still around 500 functioning mines operating in the area. The previous night I’d been in the mood to watch some TV but since the screen of the TV in my room had been replaced with an old newspaper, I met up with some German friends to watch a movie at their hostel. We had watched a documentary called “The Devil’s Miner” about the Potosi mines in which a 14 year old boy was struggling to keep his family fed, after his father had died, by working in the mines with his younger brother. Bolivia does have laws against child labor but it is rarely enforced, especially when the children are there by their own volition, such as in this case; the reality is, miners make more money than shoeshine boys. It amazed me that amid the chaotic conditions the boy, Basilio Vargas, still finds time to play with his siblings – including his feisty little sister – and the ability to laugh. The adaptability of humans to their surroundings is always something that I find intriguing – especially since it goes both ways. Like the story of the amputee and the lottery winner; a year later both reach reach comparable levels of contentedness and suffering.

As we approached the entrance of the Candeleria mine (which was one of the first established in 1545) I could make out dark stains around the entrance where llama blood had been splattered. This was an offering to Pachamama, the Earth mother who they hoped would protect them and lead them to the most profitable veins. Once inside the mines however, Tio (or ‘uncle’ in English) was who the miners had to respect and depend on. Each mine has a large statue of a demonic being, including horns and a giant phallus – after all, you don’t want to insult the Dark Lord by giving him a tiny penis.

As we entered the mines we turned on our headlamps. A thin track ran along the ground and after a few minutes of hustling through the thin tunnels Efra yelled at us:

“A wagon is coming. Soon! Get against the wall!”

We scattered like nervous chinchillas, finding small nooks against the cold, damp tunnel walls. A few seconds later a 1 ton wagon bullishly groaned by, pushed by two miners who barely acknowledged us. Soon after that we came to a fork and turned left, into Tio’s shrine. The smiling demon sat before us, his head almost at our height. Covering his arms and laying at his feet were the daily offerings of coca leaves, 98% proof alcohol and cigarettes. The miners have a fearful respect of the Devil, and unfortunate accidents and bad luck are usually blamed on miners who provided shabby offerings. In ‘The Devil’s Miner’ a Catholic priest had expressed the difficulty he had in trying to convince the miners that they could find Jesus everywhere.

“Not in the mines, they say. Down there is the domain of Tio.” He shook his head. “But at least they come to church and embrace Jesus on Sunday.” In such an intense situation it’s probably bet to hedge your bets. The reality is that the mines are a dangerous place, and in the case of accidents, the police rarely get involved. So if you discover a thick vein of silver, be careful who you tell – jealousy could leave you buried even before your lungs fail. For this reason many miners work in small groups, preferably with their family members.

At first the tunnels were cool and the air wasn’t too bad. In some places parts of the arches from 1545 were still in place, an somber connection to the times of the horrendous conditions and enslavement. These rocks had surely heard the cries and screams as the slaves had been beaten and abused. As we got deeper the air became clammy and warm. There were air tubes that pumped air from the surface, but they were of questionable effect. Efra led us passed working miners, upon whom we bestowed our various gifts, and eventually he led us down to level two, which involved the descent through a low ceilinged array of tunnels and rickety ladders. There we met two men who were shoveling large piles of ore into rubber buckets which, once full, were being winched up through a small hole near the ceiling. The pile was endless, with still others bringing in more ore constantly in wheelbarrows and dumping it at their feet. They looked like the kind of guys who could use some high calorie lemon soda, so Efra pulled a bottle from his bag.

Eventually we reached the fourth level down, after having to move through a tight series of passages on our hands and knees. As I lay on my belly in the dim light, waiting for the Dutch guy in front of me to more his jolly ass, the sound of a distant dynamite explosion pulsed through the surrounding rock.

“Don’t worry,” Efra smiled, “it’s from another mine.”

There was a moment there where I started feeling a little nervous, a little trapped and a little unhappy. By this point the air twas thick with an alkaline dust and I’d wrapped a damp bandanna across my face (another Burning Man trick!). At times like these I find it useful to incorporate a useful technique from Vipassana meditation; I close my eyes and observe my breath until my mind calms down. Find your center and realize that this moment, like all moments, are fleeting. Why be averse to something so transient?

At the deepest part of the mines we met a solitary, 13 year old boy named Nelson. Nelson was at the dead end of a deep tunnel, hand drilling a slim hole into which he was soon going to stuff some dynamite. After he lit the fuse he would only have a few minutes to run down the tracks and scramble through the tunnels before the shock-wave ripped through the entire mine. A wagon rumbled above our heads, dislodging a fine rain of dust from the rotting beams that kept it, and us, happily separate. It was time to head towards the entrance.

As we retraced our steps up narrow crawlspaces and avoided hurtling wagons full of ore the groups pace subconsciously quickened; it was apparent that everyone was looking forward to seeing sunlight. We’d only been in the mine for a couple of hours but a lot of these guys worked six days a week, eight hours a day – and that’s when they didn’t pull double shifts. Before leaving for the mines in the morning and upon returning their wives would serve them multiple bowls of llama stew to give them some long lasting energy for the days work. But no matter how much llama stew, coca leaves and lemon soda, this was a rough existence.

As if the tour hadn’t already been wild enough, Efra pulled a stick of dynamite from his bag:

“Look, now I’m a terrorist!” He laughed as he lit the fuse and then pushed it into the hands of the tourists so they could take pictures holding a lit stick of dynamite. Just as the smiles were fading and people began to back away he handed it to a miner who ran out into a field with it and through it in a hole and dove behind a rock. The explosion shot earth 50ft in the air and vibrated the ground beneath our feet. You have to love the lack of rules in developing countries.

As we trundled down the mountain in the bus, which now seemed somehow more luxurious, I thought about the life of the miners and their belief in Tio. Like any humans that face extreme harshness in their day to day lives, faith gives them hope and something to believe in. Surely when your day to day life is hell, then it feels good to be told that it’s all for a purpose, a distant heaven where all your dead friends and family would be and your pain would be taken away for eternity. That might just be enough to keep you going.

I absolutely understand the need for this yet simultaneously have a deep disdain for blind faith; so this posed an interesting debate in my head. How could you ever ask these miners to abandon their faith? You couldn’t. In fact there was a strange moment in ‘The Devil’s Miner’ where Basilio admits that Tio was probably just created to keep the miners working, however even in his moment of logic, he still finds it easier to live with this faith. I continued to ponder this and realized that there are levels of faith, some more socially benign than others. In truth it seems like the real blind faith that needs to be targeted isn’t in situations such as Basilio, it’s at the higher level; the corrupt government who bleeds its people dry while attending Mass on Sunday. On a global scale it’s the radical right wing Christians and militant Islamists who want to impose their beliefs on the rest of the world while not tolerating any other path. These groups and individuals are surely more malignant than simple laborers who put faith in the Devil and Pachamam for protection. Faith is beautiful when it connects people, and tragic when it segregates. Sadly the latter is faith’s typical trajectory, proven time and time again, for millenia.

In a somewhat depressing moment I asked myself how much has really changed since 1545 when powerful tyrants, morally empowered by a twisted dogma laid claim to a distant land, exploited its resources while enslaving and converting its indigenous population? These days the powerful tyrants work in more subtle ways, which is even more threatening because it makes it hard, especially for the misinformed and ignorant masses, to tell who the enemy is. Ultimately if the higher levels can be reached, if they can be shown the misery that their actions are propagating on themselves and the world around them AND that there’s a happier way to exist, then the trickle down affect would reach everyone, even those deep underground, working in the world of Tio.

0 Replies to “The Devil in the Mines of Potosi”

  1. I’ve always been a fan of touring mines and caves while on vacation. It sounds like one needs to head to a developing nation to get the real experience. Great write-up, bud.

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