Monday, February 16, 2009

The Mines of Potosí

Spanish keyboards are actually pretty sweet... though its difficult to type the ¨@¨ (I usually have to copy an email address and paste the @ symbol which is pretty cumbersome... just figured it out: alt-64), making an accent or ümaut (sp?) is pretty easy.

So the mines of Potosí: Potosí is a town in Bolivia, about halfway between Argentina and Peru, which is the highest city in elevation in the world and was once the richest. Potosí´s economy is fueled by the Cerro Rico, a hill adjacent to the city which was once an incredibly abundant silver mine. Recently, ex-miners in Potosí have been offering tours of the mines. Yesterday I took one, and I think its probably the most interesting tour I´ve ever been on. If you find yourself in Bolivia, Potosí is a beautiful hillside town, and the mine tour is well worth the investment.

At first the tour seems pretty exploitative: visiting a mining cooperative and watching people work in some of the worst conditions in the world. Its actually fascinating, and offers some great insight into the societal workings of Potosí and Bolivia in general. Bolivia is a very divided country, each state is very patriotic and political skirmishes between states is quite common. The generally corrupt government does little to passify the situation, resulting in a country that is perpetually poor. Public works projects to improve and expand local industries usually get lost in a quagmire of local politics. Furthermore, wealthy Bolivianos prefer to invest outside their country as its safer and usually has higher yields.

The tour started out touring the chemical processing plant. Here the ore harvested by the miners are seperated into seperate minerals, the dominant modern minerals being zinc and tin. Bolivia does not have a smelter, mineral processing has to occur outside the country, in Chile or China. Bolivia sells its minerals very cheaply and because it lacks a smelter, it often sees the products of its minerals reimported at much higher prices. Because Bolivia´s coastline was taken during a war with Chile, export of is resources has to go through Chilean shipping companies. As with most South American services, there are many independently owned mineral processing plants in Potosí.

Next the tour went to a miner´s market where we purchased dynamite and coca leaves to give to the miner´s in exchange for seeing them work. The next stop was the mine. Because it was a sunday, there were only two miners working. The mining cooperatives don´t set hours or working conditions for their workers. The cooperative, in this case mearly exists to loosely enforce a miner heierarchy and to pay taxes to the state, who owns the mountain. The miners are organized in three tiers which dictates the quality of the vein they will be mining and how much they will receive from their labor. For the most part, though, miners work independantly setting their own hours and methods of mining.

The mine entrance we visited was built about 300 years ago, and is still in use today. Once inside the mine its pretty nightmarish, the corridors are low and narrow (I bumped my head about 35 times, luckily we had to wear helmets) and after about 100 meters you hit a thermocline where the cool outside air is replaced by air, made hot and muggy through its contact with the hot stone of the mountain´s interior. Inside the mine there is a small museum (if by museum, I actually mean room, and by room I actually mean cavern hollowed out by dynamite) that the miners created with a lot of artifacts, and articles put together by the miners. This is probably one of the coolest museums I´ve ever been to, or at least the most unique... probably the only museum in the world located 100m into the side of a mountain. The museum explained things like Bolivia´s environmental/sustainable mining policies, the mine´s history, slavery in the 1700s, mining statistics, and Tio.

Tio mean´s uncle in spanish. Tio is their name for the Devil. Every friday, the miners ¨worship¨ an effigy of Tio by giving him an offering of alcohol and coka. This friday the miners had a party. There was brightly colored confetti all over the mine. Apparently miners have to maintain god spirits, or they say Tio will get them. Miners who can´t maintain a good and positive attitude have a higher likelyhood of getting hurt in the mines.

We crawled through three floors of the 8 floor mine. The mines are incredibly closterphobic spaces about ranging from about 1.5m across and 2m high and just barely crawlable. The miners don´t work to improve their working conditions by widening passageways, because, though it would probably greatly increase efficiency, none of the miners want to spend their time expanding passageways that no longer have any yield. Which means that miners will often have to carry loads of about 140lbs on their backs through nearly impassible conditions. Every day. The only requirement to be a miner: You have to be strong.

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