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Bolivia’s fabulously rich silver mine has claimed thousands of victims, yet the men keep coming.
CERRO RICO DE POTOSI, Bolivia — “There isn’t a man on this mountain who wants his children to work here,” Pablo Choque says as he prepares for his shift as a driller.
Above us towers 15,800-foot Cerro Rico — literally the “Rich Mountain” — the greatest silver deposit ever known.
Locals have another name for it: The Mountain that Eats Men.
In its 17th century heyday, armies of indigenous and African slaves died here as the ore they mined helped keep the ailing Spanish empire afloat.
Four centuries later, thousands of men like Choque continue to risk life and limb deep in the bowels of Cerro Rico as they search for its last veins of silver, zinc and tin.
The miners rarely report accidents to the labor ministry, and there are no comprehensive official mortality statistics.
But the tales of death are everywhere.
The local paper is a good place to verify the horror. “Detonation leaves miner’s body in pieces” and “Boy miner, 14, dies after falling 60 meters down chute” read two typical recent headlines.
According to Felipe Calizaya, a Bolivian professor of mining engineering at the University of Utah, there is little doubt that the mountain remains one of the most deadly places in the world to be a miner.
“The most basic safety procedures do not exist at Cerro Rico,” he told GlobalPost.
While many die from accidents, the greatest toll comes from silicosis, a lung disease caused by breathing in rock particles.
The clock begins to tick the day a miner first enters the mountain. The sickness kills most miners before they reach 40, Calizaya says.
The respiratory problems are compounded by temperatures above 90 degrees Farenheit deep inside the mountain, with the miners emerging, soaked in sweat, at the end of a shift into the cold mountain air.
Choque’s job as a driller is the most perilous. The risk of cave-ins, rocks falling, and drills suddenly bouncing backwards off a lode of harder rock are ever present.
But worst of all is the dust that causes silicosis. “You can’t see your hand,” Choque, 33, tells GlobalPost. “You have to wear a mask. Drilling for even one minute without one would be impossible, but you can hardly breathe with one.”
In a modern mine, that dust would largely be prevented by a continuous stream of water directed out of the drill tip.
Not here. Instead, it drifts back down the mine shaft, where in lower but no less deadly concentrations it is breathed in by other miners. Only the drillers wear masks.
Nor are there gas detectors, geological studies, mining engineers, or any attempt to coordinate the paths of shafts, many well over a mile long, which have left Cerro Rico resembling a sagging Swiss cheese, its summit already beginning to collapse.
Just about the only concessions to safety, both relatively recent, are the $10 helmets the miners wear and pipes periodically pumping fresh air along the main shafts – but not to the many tiny passageways that shoot off like tree branches, where the mining is actually done.
Women are not permitted here. The miners believe they bring bad luck.
In the deadly mine
We enter Cerro Rico through a narrow gash in the mountain’s side at an altitude of some 14,500 feet — equivalent to the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.
As the last rays of daylight flicker out behind us, the thin, moist air gradually begins to warm and the ceiling slowly tapers down to the uneven floor, which is flooded to ankle-height.
After five minutes of steady descent, the narrow tunnel opens out into a chamber the size of a small bedroom, home to a shrine to Tio Jorge — “Uncle George” — the devilish deity who oversees this subterranean universe.
Julio, my guide, stops briefly to make an offering to the Uncle, a three-quarters sized clay mannequin sitting cross-legged on the floor.
First he sprinkles coca leaves in the figure’s lap, then he lights a cigarette and shoves it in his mouth. Finally he sprinkles some fortified wine in front of the statue.
We are treating George better than most of the miners.
A shelf above the Uncle’s head is lined with empty bottles of “puro,” rubbing alcohol. Being the cheapest way to get utterly plastered, puro is the tipple of