Cerro Rico – “The mountain that eats men”

19 Jul

To look at Cerro Rico which stands proud above the Bolivian city of Potosi you would be forgiven for thinking that this mountain was just a beautiful mountain. It was known in Quechua as “Sumaq Urqu” which translates as beautiful mountain.  And at face value it is beautiful.

But if you look more closely you will see the abundant mine workings and have some idea of why locals call it, not beautiful, but the mountain that eats men.

And many men at that.

Eight million.

And still counting.

The mines here are a way of life.  There are today some 15,000 men working there.  It is hard to believe that looking at the mountain.  But they are still working the mines here some 500 years after the Spanish first started their exploitation of them.

They mine silver, lead, tin and zinc.  They say that only 25% of the minerals have been mined so far so there is still “life” in mining here, if that is the correct word to use.

At one stage Potosi produced 50% of the world’s silver and the streets of the city were literally paved in silver.  They used it for handbags and even toilet seats.  The coins produced had so much silver (98%)  in them that they were worth more than the currency they represented.

Today mining continues in cooperatives.  The miners have a low life expectancy…some say 30 to 35 years (or 10 to15 years of working there).  The conditions are poor, safety standards minimal and wages low.  While some miners earn based on what they produce (selling it to the various companies around Potosi for the minerals to be extracted) others are paid a daily wage of 50 bolivianos (5 pounds) for an 8 hour shift in cramped, dusty, often ridiculously hot conditions.

Some start young.  I met one who, at 14,had been working for 4 years in the mines. Others are students who work in the mines during their holidays to pay for their studies.  I met one who was studying economics.  He was aged 29 and unmarried.  He said he would marry once he had a career and could support a family.  It is a hard life in the mines which accounts for the many superstitions which the miners are.

They worship “El Tio” a devil like representation whose statue they deliver offerings to in the mine.  This comes from during the Spanish conquest when the Spaniards said to the locals that “El Dios” the God of the underworld would punish them if they didn’t work in the mines.  In Quechua they did not have the sound “d” so the locals pronounced it “El Tio” and that name has stuck.

They worship God outside the mines but in the underworld of the mines they worship El Tio.  They don’t believe that God exists within the mines and instead believe that El Tio rules in the subterrean world of the mines.

Having been inside one of the many mines, that is not too hard to understand. What sort of God would send men to early graves in conditions such as these?

They drink an alcoholic substance which is almost 100% proof.  I was told that they drink this only when they have found a good vein of minerals in the mine.  They do not mix this with anything else as to do so would, in their beliefs, lead to them finding a mixed vein of minerals as opposed to a pure vein.  These are superstitious men (local women are not allowed in the mines) and perhaps these rituals give them the strength to endanger their lives in the mines day after day all to earn money for their families or studies.

You might ask why they don’t mechanise the process to save so many men having to work in these conditions?  The explanation I was given was that they need the work and machines would reduce the jobs for locals so people don’t want that.  And that is not so hard to understand.  That said Cerro Rico will remain the mountain that, literally, eats men.

Cerro Rico

Cerro Rico

Mines at Cerro Rico

Mines at Cerro Rico

"El Tio"

"El Tio"

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