The mountain that eats men alive, Cerro Rico, looms over the eerie Bolivian city of Potosi. For a murderer, her carved red slopes seem more docile than the menacing, labyrinthian hollows of this gigantic silver mine, a place that has claimed upwards of 8 million lives since the Spanish discovered the rampant tumors of silver in her rocky flesh.
El cerro que come hombres vivos.
There is a path that winds up the mountain. It is the path that the mineros trudge up day after day with exhausted eyes and distended cheeks packed with coca leaves. At each switchback there is a monument to the dead. It is a winding cemetery.
But why is Cerro Rico still claiming lives today? It never has, really. It was the Spanish who were happy to turn blood into silver. It was man not mountain that condemned miners to their deaths. Perhaps it was rock or toxic gas or dust that would deliver the final blow but they were blows made inevitable by man.
But the miners don’t see rock. They see religion. Spirits. The rock that they penetrate is Mother Earth, Pacha Mama. They are making love to her and the fruit of their loins is a brood of minerals.
Out of the mines, the men are predominantly Christian. But in the mines, they are said to worship Satan. In each mine, there is an appalling statue – complete with gnarled horns, flaming pupils, and a shameless erection – that they worship called Uncle: El Tio. They genuflect at his feet and make him sinful offerings of alcohol and coca leaves. Some say he was created by a devious Spaniard who chose to exploit the indigenous proclivity for Paganism.
The miners understand their world of death as the will of Tio. And who can blame them for creating such a schema through which to understand their world of death and darkness? But I am fortunate enough to be a man of science. When I see murder I turn to forensics, not fairytales. So why are men still dying today? The Spanish are long gone. The mountain is now nationalized, and the mines are run by profit sharing cooperatives. Tourism and journalism have long since revealed the unacceptable conditions of the mines to the world.
Through my brief tour into the rocky underbelly of Cerro Rico the true answers began to distill from the dross. Why do drillers work without masks and submit their lungs to dissolution by dust? Why do they trust in rickety boards to cross chasms of unfathomable depths? Why do they work shift of ungodly lengths? How do they sustain themselves on the numbing and suppressive effects of coca and go without water or food for hours at a time?
There are many answers to these questions. There is still exploitation. There is still the implacable prodding of poverty that forces one to except inadequate conditions and also makes improvement of those conditions impossible. But the most striking reason for the continuing suffering of Potosian miners is culture. Agreed, it is a culture borne out of poverty, ignorance, pain and anger. It is a culture tied to an elaborate history. But miners are dying in Potosi because of culture.
The main culprit is Machismo. In order to endure in the mines, the men must be as hard as the earth they confront. But there are some tragic side effects to this source of strength. The drillers have masks, but they don’t wear them: in part because of the extreme physical demand of their job and in part because they refuse to be afraid of dust. But ask any miner what the biggest danger is in the mine and they timeless response is polvo. Dust. Drillers are said to live on average for eight years.
Beyond the masks, many unnecessary risks are taken in the mine. Holes are bridged with rickety 2x4s. Few if any toxic gas indicators are used in new tunnels. Dynamite is a thunderous plaything that left my ears ringing, head reeling and heart racing when I experienced twenty underground explosions of my own during a tour. The sticks of ammonium nitrate seem firecrackers to them
Then there is fatalism. Even though the workers are in a sense their own employer, they never strive for our shout out for better conditions. If it is their time, it is their time. Many of the miners are drunk off of pure ethanol during their work. Fatalism breeds carelessness.
The final cultural assassin is greed. Miners aren’t forced to work twenty hour shifts, but if the price of silver is high, they expose themselves to excessive rigor and fatigue with the hopes of making an extra buck. And the profits of the cooperatives, which are already low in the exhausted mines, aren’t invested into better equipment or safety improvements. Short term consumption is preferred.
The problem with the cultural side of the problem is that it is so irredeemable. And identifying the problem can often perpetuate it as miners swagger in front of tourists who in turn offer them aggravating gifts of cigarettes, coca, and alcohol in exchange for photographs.
I had some low moments in the highest city in the world. The people are angry. I fell prey to sickness and to petty theft. But despite the poverty and the diminishing profitability of mining in Cerro Rico, the wealth of history in this place is all but inestimable.