Walking back into the light after two hours of being underground, with little air, dust in your lungs and suffocating heat, feels like each breath you take is the freshest you’ve ever taken.
Now, imagine being under such conditions, not for two, but 14 hours a day 5 or 6 times a week, for 30 years or more, if your body can handle it.
Cerro Rico, or “Rich Mountain,” also known colloquially as la come hombres – “man-eater” has been providing silver and swallowing people for 500 hundred years and conditions within it have changed very little since the colony.
Men with rudimentary equipment and close to no safety regulations mine whatever’s left of the nearly drained mountain that once fueled European development and is now the livelihood of 70 percent of the population of Potosi in Bolivia.
Back in colonial times, when Potosi was one of the richest and most populated cities in the western world, an expression caught on in Europe: “to be worth a Potosi,” meaning something was worth a fortune, as Eduardo Galeano describes in his book Open Veins of Latin America.
Under Spanish rule, from 1556 to 1783, tell official records at the National Mint of Bolivia, about 41,000 tons of Silver were extracted from this mine and taken to Europe. Although unofficial recounts claim the amount was far greater. It is said that what was taken from Potosí was more than the entire silver reserves existent in Europe at the time, and that hundreds of thousands of indigenous slaves died in the process. So many, that at some point the Spanish imported thousands of African slaves just to compensate the loss of indigenous work force.
This UNESCO World Heritage site was “regarded as the world’s largest industrial complex” in the 16th century, according to the UN. Nowadays it is a poverty-stricken town where men die before age 40 either by accident in the mine or coughing up blood from Silicosis, after breathing dusty air for years.
Potosi is the perfect example of what has been the fate and history of Latin America. During the colony the indigenous were forced to work to death so Europe could benefit from the natural resources of the New World, and once those resources were depleted and the colony ended, locals were left with the scraps and struggling to make a living, under the management of international companies.
And just as bad as the exploitation of these people, is the way in which they were forced to attempt against their very precious Pachamama (mother earth). For the Incas there was nothing more valuable and sacred than Pachamama, so they would’ve never sacked it in the way they were forced to at Potosi. That is why the mining experience here is not like every other business; it involves rituals and traditions that will prevail until there is not one gram left to be taken out and the mountain collapses on itself – which is the most likely scenario.
Check out Laura’s blog for more pics at Southbound.