Sunday, 5 May 2013

A visit to the Cooperative mines in Potosi, Bolivia

At one stage, Potosi was the richest city in the whole of South America, with an outlandish amount of silver on offer, the Spanish mined the area until it was pretty much exhausted. Now, there are remnants of a city rich in history but by and large it's time has come and gone. Mining still continues in what is the deemed the highest city in the world at 4070m. Conditions are harsh and it's normal for miners to have a shelf life of only another 10 years once they start working in the mines, however many people in this poor area have no choice but to work here.

Even though the mines are still in use, tours are available to see just how difficult life is for the miners. Prices are around 100 Bolivianos which is very cheap and half of the money is given to the miners so you know you're supporting a good cause.

Tours start with pick up and then you are taken to get yourself kitted out in overalls, boots, helmet and flash light. Temperatures increase pretty quickly in the mines with the fourth and fifth levels comfortably getting up to 40 degrees so there's no need to wear too much under the clothes you are given.

Once decked out in your new garb you are taken to the miners market where you buy 'gifts' for the miners who are working that day. These generally include coca leaves,water, fizzy drinks and dynamite. Yes, you can go to the local market and get your hands on some dynamite.

From here the bus drives up towards Cerro Rico, Rich Hill, which is where the mining takes place. On the way you get great panoramic views of the city and stop via the processing plant where the zinc and silver (today's more mined elements) are extracted from the rock.

Once at the top of Rich Hill, the jeep is greeted by dogs, we get another quick safety brief and we turn our lights on, I can't stress enough how indispensable the helmet and light were. Without them you'd happily be nursing a concussion as the tunnels get seriously narrow and at stages you have to crawl through them.

The first couple of levels are harmless enough, if you will, but descending into the lower levels it becomes hotter and the lack of oxygen becomes more apparent with dust particles circling around you and breath harder to come by. Wearing a thin scarf across your mouth helps but you still have to fight for breath the further down you go, I've no idea how the miners who work in here day in, day out survive this place a week, let alone ten years.

Down on the fifth level, our group encounters our first miners who are busy at work. They have two tonnes of rock to shift: using only a shovel, they move the rock into a gourd shaped container which when full, is hoisted up to one of the upper levels to be transported to the surface in a similar fashion, or so I assume. The men are thankful for our presence, it gives them a small amount of respite from their work as they get to replenish their supplies from our gifts and the lads in the group have a go at shovelling the rock. It's hard work, just filling one of the gourds takes only a minute or so, but once that one is lifted away, there is another one waiting to be filled right there and then. It's back breaking work, hats off to these men who do this on nothing but water, pop and coca leaves, which not only gives them energy as they don't eat while on shift, but also acts as an indicator of time; once the leaves lose flavour, it's time for a break.

After a while it's time to leave the miners to their work and visit the 'museum', this is in actual fact more of a shrine to El Tio, basically if you leave coca leaves, alcohol or a foetal llama in some cases as offerings, then you are more likely to get good hauls of elements. The men here are so superstitious that women are not allowed in the mines, and only recently did they stop complaining about female tourists visiting.

Following on from here, the group is taken out of the mines via a different access route, but not before handing out some dynamite to some miners intent on causing some destruction and finding some fruitful rock. Unfortunately they are a little over the top with their safety so when the explosion actually happened, it sounded more like a far off fart. Still, better than getting yourself blown up.

Toward the end of the tunnel, the air becomes clearer and you can feel the wind picking up as you near the exit until the end is in sight as a tiny glimmer of light becomes bigger and bigger. Even at 4070m, the air feels fresh and loaded with oxygen and everyone takes a deep breath before been taken back to the city to clean up.

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