When we say underground, we mean underground
Our descent into the mine
It is not just one mine, but several smaller mines, which are in the same cooperative. The mines of Potosí are located in the mountain called “Cerro Rico”, which is Spanish for rich mountain. It contains a lot of silver and other ores, Potosí has based it`s whole economy on the mining that was commercialized by the Spanish as far back as the 1600s. Between 1545 and 1824, about 8 million Indians and African slaves died in the process of producing between 22,000 and 45,000 tons of silver for the Spanish Empire. Cerro Rico has more than lived up to its monster-movie nickname “The Mountain That Eats Men” (Source: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/dispatches/2006/09/the_mountain_that_eats_men.html).
This silver ore contains 25% silver (the ore contains between 15-25% of silver in this mine)
After 1800, the silver mines were depleted, making tin the main product. This eventually led to a slow economic decline. At the start of the 20th century, liberal reforms and an increase in government policies favoring foreign investment led to a decrease in nationalization of natural resources and an increase in ownership by private companies. In 1901 a change in Peruvian mining codex allowed the mines to be privatized. A New York company bought 80 % of the mines in the Cerro de Pasco region, and the newly formed Cerro de Pasco Corporation pursued immediate large-scale extractive mining, which contributed to a long-term change in the local eco-system.
After centuries of extractive mining methods that severely damaged the local ecology the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions, such as a lack of protective equipment against the constant inhalation of dust, many of the miners contract silicosis and have a life expectancy of around 40 years. The mountain is still a significant contributor to the city’s economy, employing some 15,000 miners (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerro_Rico).
Meet our guide Antonio, the tunnel in the right picture is from the 1600-century, when the Spaniards owned the mines
Antonio worked for 5 years in the mine, from he was 14-19 years old. His grandfathers and his farther also worked in the mine, but they both died early of silicosis (Silicosis is a form of occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust, and is marked by inflammation and scarring in the form of nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs. Symptoms of acute silicosis include more rapid onset of severe disabling shortness of breath, cough, weakness, and weight loss, often leading to death. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silicosis). Antonio decided to stop working in the mines at the age of 19, when his father died. Today Antonio lives of taking tourists into the mines.
Meet the tourist group for the day – 4 people in the group was perfect (go in smaller groups)
During the tour Antonio made several offerings to the mountain. The offerings is a part of respecting the mountain and keeping the miners in the mines safe. The offering are cigarettes, coca leaves and 100% portable alcohol. Antonio is pouring the 100% alcohol on Tío’s penis, explaining that it’s a customary way to ensure that Tío fertilizes Pachamama (Mother Earth) so that the mines will produce more ore.
Two different offering sites of El Tío (the uncle)
As a result of centuries long mining, in 2011 a sinkhole in the top appeared and had to be filled with ultra-light cement. The summit also continues to sink a few centimetres every year. In 2014, UNESCO added Cerro Rico and Potosí to its list of endangered sites, owing to “uncontrolled mining operations” that risk “degrading the site” (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerro_Rico).
We better get out of that mine
Two different materials comes out of the mines, the most valuable is the silver ore, which can be sold directly. To earn enough money big amounts of raw material containing tin and zinc are transported out of the mine, which is sold to the processing plant. At the processing plant the tin and zinc are extracted.
The processing plant is running Monday through Saturday
The process of separating tin and zinc from the soil
Huge amounts of chemical are being used, with no regulations to protect the environment.The pollutants inevitably enter the watershed, causing health problems and the presence of heavy metals in crops downstream from the mines. The rocks in local streams are evidence of the high metal content—most are colored bright red from oxidized iron, yellow from the many sulfates in the water, or even a greasy jet black from oxidized manganese (Source: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/dispatches/2006/09/the_mountain_that_eats_men.html).
These are the two final products, in the left picture you have the up concentrated zinc (or tin), and in the right picture a concrete pit is filled to the edge with a mix of soil and chemicals. A young guy is stirring in the waste of the production to release gasses from the mud. This reduces the risks of explosions. We were already thinking: “How old is he gonna get?”
To keep the mine from being robed families live nearby, so that they can keep an eye on the mine entrance
As a part of the visit we went to small local store to buy gifts (crackers, soda, coca leaves etc.) for the locals. Yes, it is real dynamite
Ready to go!
All in all we had a great tour. Go in a small group, and on on a week day, because the miners don’t work in the mines Saturday and Sunday. We really like, that some of the money we paid for the tour goes to the miners in the Potosí area. We paid 120 BOB for the tour and 20 BOB for the gifts, so in total 140 BOB per person (20 USD or 130 DDK). Antonio speak fairly good English, but ask him to slow down, when he starts speaking really fast and ask a lot of questions. Next on the blog is our visit in Sucre, where we are gonna walk in the footprints of the dinosaurs.