Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A silver mountain

The pyramidal mountain of Cerro Rico has an extremely dark history (unfortunately also present and future) and is locally known as the mountain of silver. Located in Bolivia, the 4800m high mountain contained rich silver ores that were already exploited by indigenous people when the conquistadores arrived in 1545. The city of Potosi was founded at the foot of Cerro Rico and soonafter a labyrinth of tunnels came into being. With their relentless thirst for silver and gold the silver mines were a large income of wealth for the Spanish colonists. It almost single handedly funded the expansion of the Spanish empire for a mere 200 years.

At 4090m height Potosi is the highest city on earth. In 1672 Potosi also became the largest city in the world with a population of almost 200,000 people, exceeding the inhabitants of London and Paris. However, this came with a price. At first the conquistadores used indigenous miners, however this source of labor dried up in time. An estimated 2000 African slaves per year were forced to work at the mine. Today it is believed that between 4 and 8 million miners (Indigenous and African) lost their lives mining for silver.

In 1800 the mining of silver ore was ceased due to the receding quality of the silver after almost 41,000 tons of pure silver was mined. The mountain has actually lost a few hundred meters in height due to the extensive mining. However, the mines also contain ores of tin, zinc, chromium and cadmium. At Cerro de Potosi these ores occur in sulfide form and when these are exposed to water and air they oxidize and create (hydrogen, metal or sulfate) ions. Water that passes through this almost instantly becomes acidic. Also, the water will collect the heavy metals present in the ores after the valuable products are removed. Presently the mining of these resources is ongoing and the harsh working conditions as well as old-fashioned mining techniques. The dust the miners inhale contains arsenic, silica and asbestos causing silicosis. Therefore the life-expectancy for the men working at the mines is around 40 years. Unfortunately, 9000 people including many children continue to work at the mine. It would take the children two months of salary to be able to attend school. (See here for a very interesting documentary on child laborers at Potosi’s mines:

A spirit known as El Tío is worshiped in the Potosi mines. Most miners are devout Catholics that believe that the devil determines their fate in the mine. This devil offers protection as well as destruction. El Tío can be seen as a mixture between the Christian devil and possibly the indigenous lord of the underworld (then known as Huari or Wari). El Tío owns the wealth of the mines and decided over the life or death of the miners. He is not fed but has a lust for blood. Statues of Tío are seen all over the mines and often display horns, a goat’s beard and other typical Christian devil characteristics. The workers sacrifice anything from cigarettes to coca leaves and liquor to him in the hope they will stay alive. Some Tío’s display a large sex organ over which miners sometimes pour liquor. This symbolizes Tío fertilizing Pachamama (Mother Earth) which in turn ensures that the mine will stay wealthy. Interestingly the spirit of El Tío displays similarities with other Catholic cultures that practice voudou such as Legba, a spirit of protection found often in the form of a statue in Haiti. Here, worshipers also offer tobacco and rum in return for protection. Above ground miners seek the protection of Jesus or Nuestra Virgen del Socavón (the Virgin of the Tunnel). She can be seen as a mixture between Pachamama and most likely the Virgin Mary.

Image: The mines on the flanks of Cerro Rico.


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