Oct 08

VIDEO: Exploiting Bolivia – part 1 – “the riches that made us poor”

by in Bolivia

The gate to the Bolivian Mining Corporation's Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill, sports a photograph of the nations current president Evo Morales | by brandon c janes iv

The gate to the Bolivian Mining Corporation’s Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill, in Potosí, Bolivia sports a photograph of the nation’s current President Evo Morales | by brandon c janes iv

Nothing tells the story better than the facts: Potosí, the capital of the poorest department of the poorest country in South America, cradles what was once the richest mountain on earth.

During the Spanish colonial era of the 16th and 17th centuries, indigenous and african slaves extracted veins of pure silver two-meters-wide and several kilometers long straight from the surface of Potosí’s famous mountain Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill – making it the richest city in the world at the time.

A common saying here is that the silver exploited from Cerro Rico could have built a bridge from Potosí all the way to Spain.

Today – nearly 500 years after the mining began – Potosinos have little to show for it.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano captured the plight of Potosí in one line of his book, Open Veins of Latin America.

He writes, “Our wealth has always generated our poverty through nourishing the prosperity of others.”

Today, the mountain of Cerro Rico is collapsing after nearly a century of haphazard attempts by the impoverished Bolivian miners to find the final stores of aggregate silver and tin left inside.

Outside the mines, peasant women in dusty shawls and Spanish bowler hats rummage through the tailings, looking for coals left over from five centuries of flame.

An old woman, a Quechua – the indigenous culture of the Central-Bolivian Andes – told me that each rock has a soul just like a man and that mountains are the greatest of all living things.

“The mountain is dying,” she said. “And to us that is like a man dying.”

Dark devils and (barely) potable alcohol

The 27 de Marzo Mining Cooperative is a warren of small mud-brick cabins stuck into the mountainside around the entrance of a muddy mine shaft overlooking the city of Potosí.

Most days 27 de Marzo is a place of work, where men prepare to enter into a mountain of sweltering, 120-degree Fahrenheit (50 degree Celsius) temperatures, collapsing tunnels, dynamite blasts and odorless, poison gas floating around like the angel of death.

However on the last Friday of every month – my first visit to the mines – the Bolivians are not working. They are worshiping their gods and bring their own poison to the ceremony.

The poison of Potosí is clear liquor with a name so plain as “potable alcohol” – noventa y seis grados, they brag; 96 percent pure alcohol.

It comes in a white 1-liter bottle, costs 15 bolivianos (or U.S.$2.17) and tastes like something with which you would clean medical utensils. In fact, Potosinos use it to clean their feet.

Three miners of the 27 de Marzo Mining Cooperative in Potosí, Bolivia argue inside of one of the mining camp huts | photo by brandon c janes iv

Three miners of the 27 de Marzo Mining Cooperative in Potosí, Bolivia argue inside of one of the mining camp huts | photo by brandon c janes iv

At around 9 a.m., sitting together on a 2-by-6 set over some muddy buckets outside the mine, a barrel-chested miner named Alejo wrapped his arm around me, and – inebriated beyond comprehension – began mumbling his Quechua prayers to the Pachamama – the Quechua Mother Earth.

Then he poured a little of his drink – half-water, half-potable alcohol – twice onto the earth and drank the rest in one draught.

Alejo, a father of four, said he knew mining Cerro Rico was unsustainable, both for the human casualties – reportedly 35 miners die each year inside Cerro Rico and many more contract the deadly lung disease silicosis – and for its waining resources.

The miner said he had felt some of those pains before, when his group of about eight miners went without striking minerals for almost a year. The group receives health benefits, childcare and retirement through the cooperative but paychecks only come if they crack into silver, tin or zinc.

“If we don’t find mineral we don’t make any money,” Alejo said.

He said mining for him is a sacrifice, to give his children the opportunity to study something greater.

“For me there is no room for this anymore,” Alejo said. “I hope that nobody will continue this work.”

He wasn’t alone in feeling that Potosí’s mining boom had ended. It seemed to me that there is nothing left but to wait for the mountain to fall and this city of 240,000 people to fall with it.

But what I really wanted to know was how such a culture could let a mountain of treasure slip through its hands, leaving itself nothing but silicone dust in the lungs and empty rituals.

Exploiting Bolivia – part 2 – sitting with the dead

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4 Responses to “VIDEO: Exploiting Bolivia – part 1 – “the riches that made us poor””

  1. From Chaison:

    Fascinating story and excellent video. I am curious about whether it was difficult to have such close access to the mining and the miners in their after work celebration.

    Posted on October 9, 2013 at 7:58 am #
  2. From Miller:

    Really good stuff man. Nice video, incredible interviews. Potosi has such an amazing history. It has always seemed at the heart of the western expansion of Western society, or at least telling.

    Luke “The Duke” turned me onto your blog. I really like it. Love the design, love the idea. Just quit a job as a sports writer and am headed to Central America. This inspires me to write about it.

    Hope you are well, and drop me a line if you have the chance. m.

    Posted on October 11, 2013 at 4:26 pm #
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