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Briefing for a descent into Hell

BOLIVIA | Thursday, 8 June 2006 | Views [3247]

Entering Hell

Entering Hell

Posati which at 4000 meters is the highest city/town of it's size in the world. At one time it was the richest city in the world, it's wealth built on the conical hill Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) which dominates the town and which was mined for it's rich seams of silver. The silver was extracted under appealing conditions with an estimated eight million men dieing over the three hundred years the silver has been worked. By the early 19th Century the silver was worked out and the town went into decline, nowadays it is full of ornate churches built on the silver wealth and lots of lawyers. Most tourists come to Posoti not to see the architectural sights but to experience one of the world’s most unusual tours, a visit to the mines that are still worked inside Cerro Rico. You know that it's an different kind of tour as you are asked to sign a disclaimer when you book it. Among the things it says is that although the guide will do his best to keep you safe, he can't protect you from a cave in, which for the miners is the commonest form of death; on average two die every month from this cause. In fact only one tourist has died in the twenty years of the mines being a tourist attraction and he died as he stepped back to take a picture and then fell down a 35 meter shaft. Cave ins excluded, the average life expectancy of a miner is only 15 years, the dust and medieval conditions all take their toll.  Today 12,000 miners work inside the mountain and most of them do so because there are no other jobs.

Cerro Rico has been worked for almost 400 years and is riddled with tunnels, the interior of the mountain is like a giant Swiss cheese . The miners work independently above and below each other, exploiting each seam as they find it and opening it up with dynamite. There is no systematic planning for getting the ore out, no geologists, no maps and no mine rescue should an accident happen. A  team of American Geologists and Mine Engineers did once inspect the mines and concluded that the interior of the mountain would collapse in seven years - that was eleven years ago; but as our guide said, hopefully today won't be the day it happens. The logical way to get at the ore would be to strip mine the mountain, which would be more efficient and safer. The downside would be that it would employ very few men and so that biggest opponents to this are the miners themselves who despite their appalling conditions at least feel they have a livelihood.

So if you're feeling lucky you turn up for the tour. Firstly you are taken to a house to be kitted out as a miner, overalls, Wellington boots and a helmet and light set. The next stop is the miners market. As the miners have to pay for all their own equipment and tools it is customary to take them some presents. These include sticks of dynamite, detonators and blasting cord, soft drinks and on Fridays, bottles of 97% alcohol which the miners drink to help them forget the week gone by. One of thrills for most tourists is handling explosives, as most of them are unlikely to ever do it again. Next stop is the Coca market to get presents for the workers at the ore refinery which we are visiting first. There are 32 refineries around the town which extract the minerals from the raw ore. These are small ‘shovel and wheelbarrow’ affairs with lots of whirling belts and machinery crushing and panning. To separate the heavy metals (mainly silver and zinc) from the ore some very unpleasant chemicals are used including Hydrochloric Acid and Sodium Cyanide which are in open baths. On the tour you are able to walk around all this, there are no safety guards or barriers at all. When the chemicals are spent, they all go into a local river and flow away into Argentina. How the Argentineans feel about having their rivers laced with Cyanide, nobody seemed to know. If the real cost of extraction was taken into account, with environmental cleanup afterwards, the whole mining operation would be uneconomic which is why everyone from the government (who take their cut of the extracted metal) downwards, turns a blind eye.

After the refineries we are off to the mines themselves. We drive to a shaft that is cut horizontally into the side of the mountain which is surrounded by a few adobe buildings and assorted rubbish. A compressor is pumping air down a tube into the shaft.  Our guides are all ex miners and most of them speak good English. All around the shaft and the buildings there are large gobs of blood as a llama was recently sacrificed during a festival, the Cerro Rico miners are as superstitious as any others in the world.

When you first enter the shaft it’s not too bad, the roof being fairly high. This particular tunnel was hundreds of years old and quite well made. We had to stop for a while in a wider part of the tunnel as an ore wagon comes by. This has two tons of ore in it and is pushed by two men. Apart from the compressed air for the drills; there is no mechanization in the mines at all. The wagons are at least an improvement; previously the ore was carried out in sacks on the backs of the workers. In an offshoot of the main tunnel is a small museum which has a collection of tools and some dressed mannequins to represent the workers who have worked in the mines over the centuries. There is a lot of interesting information on display. Towards the back of the chamber what looks like asbestos in its natural state covers the walls and roof making me glad I’d invested one boliviano in a paper mask. We then continue down the tunnel, what is noticeable is that it gets steadily hotter and there is a lot of dust in the air, especially when a wagon goes by. After a while I have to admit I gave up and asked to go back to the surface. All the guide books warn you of how unpleasant and claustrophobic it is in the mines but this doesn’t really prepare you for how bad it really is. I was still on the first level when I turned back, the rest of the group descended down an incline to the second level where the mining was going on.  The extracted ore is put into large canvas buckets and lifted up shafts to be put into wagons on the first level and pushed out. Very hot, dusty and unpleasant. 

Back on the surface it’s playtime with the dynamite we have all chipped into buying. The guides make a few simple ‘bombs’ and light the fuses a short distance up the road. The explosions are pretty impressive, one wonders what they must be like underground where everything is compressed.

The lasting impression of the mines is - thank god I don’t have to work there, this is a tour after all. The tour company I went there with does give a percentage of the fee to the miners’ welfare but no amount of money can compensate for such a desperate and unpleasant way of life. It’s worth seeing to make you realize the real cost of many of the things we take for granted.

Tags: Observations

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