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The original world nomad "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." - Confucius.


BOLIVIA | Saturday, 16 January 1999 | Views [2771]

The thin atmosphere and strong shadows sharpen the pink, blue, red, orange and green that paint Cerro Rico as it towers over Potosi. Silver, zinc, lead and tin, plus 21,000 men still toiling to extract it.

Crates of dynamite mix with sacks of cocoa leaves, bundles of cigarettes and bottles of pure alcohol lining the streets of the market. This is where their day starts. The miners chew the leaves mixed with cactus ash to supress hunger, sleep and pain. After chewing about thirty leaves they are left with a golf ball sized wad that sits beside the gum and releases it drug over about 4 hours, which signals the time for the next break.

With so much dynamite, flammable alcohol and cigarettes around it's a wonder there aren't more explosions! Crawling and climbing through a few of the dark, wet, muddy and dusty tunnels that riddle the mountain, the only light coming from an ancient handheld acetylene miners lamp, we visit some of the miners with the assistance of a native guide who once worked here.

Conditions are medieval. Men, if you can call a thirteen year old that, toil for days, usually without power tools to hammer and blast minerals out of the hill. They carry the ore to the surface either on their backs or sometimes in carts on unsteady tracks. In a month they extract about eight tons, which, if they are lucky and it is rich in Silver, they get about US$140 or if not about a quarter of that. And then they have to deduct their working costs.

Life expectancy isn't high. Since the Spanish first enslaved the indigenous population as miners, more than eight million have perished. That's a daily average of 75 for the last 300 years.

Despite the recent successes of some unions, a trip into the depths enables an understanding of the conditions under which unionism was born. Perhaps someone with a grasp of the root of the English language could explain where "pittance" derives from?

Choice. Freedom. Aren't these such relative words? The miners choose to work here. In this democratic country they are free not to. They are also free to starve. With the power and wealth residing largely with the descendants of the Spanish, it is not surprising that almost all the miners are of Indian decent and speak only Quechua. Without an education they can't learn and education costs money, which the pittance earned in the mines won't pay for. Thus we found children as young as thirteen working besides their fathers and the cycle continues.

Freedom. I despise the use of the word.

Tags: colonialism, freedom, history, philosophy of travel, poverty


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