A somber landmark atop a base of almost pure silver, the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) casts its dark shadows over Potosi. Dark clouds over its summit cry the memory of endless slaves who died while mining the metal for their masters. One of the worse shows of inhumanity ever seen, it cost the lives of eight million slaves, as much as the actual Bolivian population.
The summit reaches 5183 meters above sea level and was discovered by the Spaniards on April 1, 1545. Since then and until the nineteenth century, over fifty-six thousand tones of silver were extracted. In 1952 the mines were seized by the government and slavery was officially abolished. In 1985, after the extraction was not rentable anymore, the mines were given back to some fifty labor unions which still operate them nowadays. Apparently there are another fifty thousand tonnes underground (even the UN is participating in the plans to extract them while preserving Cerro Rico’s shape)
In 1572 the Mita – a form of slavery – was instituted by the Spaniard governor. Once every seven years, every male between 18 and 50, worked in the mines for four months. They were not paid and they often died. In 1638, a monk calculated that each "peso" produced cost ten dead men.
In a sense the slavery continues nowadays. Fifteen thousand workers – with well over a thousand of them being children – work in the mines. Only 3500 have some kind of pension and most of them die prematurely due to pneumonia silicosis. If the dead miner did not have a pension, then his children or wife take his place in the mine and are added to the following decade list of dead. They earn pennies scratching out, almost literally with their nails, the scarce silver, tin and zinc left in the depths. Most work is still done by hand, though some of the mines (there are 420 entries to the mountain depths) have compressed-air facilities. The miners work for some ten hours per day, in which no food is consumed and no air filtering equipment is used. Coca leaves give the workers the needed stamina and they are also a powerful appetite depressant.
Many agencies in town arrange tours to the mines. A half-day tour costs 50BOB (around six dollars); all the equipment needed to enter the mines is included in the price. The specific mine to be visited is difficult to control; it depends on which ones are working in the given day. In the way to the mines, a short break at the "Mercado de los Mineros" (Miners Market) allows to have a miners breakfast (a thick soup) and to buy some gifts (soda drinks and coca leaves) for the miners in the mine to be visited.
We visited the Kunti Mine (Kunti – Quechua for "Encounter Place") and that was a fortunate choice. A few days prior to the visit, the tunnels of other mine collided with the ones of Kunti, and we witnessed how the miners were settling the conflict. The new gates connecting the colliding tunnels were being guarded and talks to settle the conflict were in progress.
Narrow tunnels flooded with polluted water made our path through the mine; the boots we got provided the needed protection. The guide was listening for approaching wagons – loaded ones coming out and empty ones reentering the mine – and warned us each time one approached us. Flattening our bodies to the wall was all we could do to avoid being run over by them. The place was so dusty, that my camera mouse got stuck; the camera needed professional care afterwards. After seeing such damage within a couple of hours, it is hard to understand how the miners survive a decade or more of work in such conditions until they die of pneumonia silicosis. The tour is very impressive: shaky ladders connect between tunnels at different levels, rudimentary tools dating back to the colonial days compete with modern air compressed equipment and colorful metal veins – following a general north to south direction – adorn the otherwise naked walls. Whenever we met miners we left them a bottle of soda and a small bag of coca leaves we bought beforehand in the market. At the very end of the tunnels was the "tio."
At first, the concept is confounding. "Tio" means "uncle" in Spanish and that obviously is not the case of the creature facing the nosy visitors. To understand the concept, it must be known that the Quechua language lacks the consonant "D." Hence, the Spanish "Dios" (God) became "Tio" while the Quechua people tried to pronounce it. Yet, the figure being worshipped there is not God, but Satan. Painted in deep red, with big horns on his head and goat’s feet, it resembles a sitting satyr with a huge erection. The miners bring him cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol and soda drinks on a daily basis. Our guide – not a miner, but a Quechua woman – was very careful to light a cigarette and put it on the idol’s mouth. At its feet was a fake human-skull which got a similar treatment. As the visit was during the carnival, the figure was adorned with colorful strips of paper (and the tunnels with tiny flags). After the idol got his share of the feast, the miners killed a llama at the mine entry, spilled its blood on the entrance to calm the Pachamama (the earth god) and then barbequed it. Is the Satanic cult an answer to miners’ enslavers? Probably not, there are signs that the cult goes deep within the local cultures past. Moreover, the Quechua and Aymara languages – before getting their share of Spanish - had many words for daemons but none for God.
Few places manage to evoke so powerfully the past, with modern people still living – and dying - it.