Men of METTLE

By Anderson, Chris | Geographical, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Men of METTLE


Anderson, Chris, Geographical


The once famed seams of silver from the Cerro Rico mountain in Bolivia have almost run dry. But deep inside the mountain, miners using primitive tools still toil in the sweltering heat. Photojournalist Chris Anderson witnesses the daily grind

SQUATTING AMONG THE RUBBLE on a mountainside 4,500 metres up on the Bolivian altiplano, Luis Montes clutches his head. He has not gone to work today, taking the day off on account of a fearful headache caused by four days revelling at the wedding party of Casiana and Samuel Mamani. The city of Potosi is spread out beneath him: the spires of the cathedral at its centre, the muted colours of colonial mansions and churches and the cobbled streets that wind toward the frayed edges of the city. Immediately below him are the mud-brick houses and tin roofs of zona San Cristobal, where Luis has his own house.

Behind and 500 metres-or-so above him, towers the `rich mountain' of Cerro Rico, the source of the enormous quantities of silver on which the city was built. Luis' headache has put him in a reflective, if rather prickly mood. He likes to lay the blame for most things, from his own health to wider socio-economic issues facing Bolivia and her Latin American neighbours, squarely at the door of conquistador Francisco Pizarro, responsible for vanquishing the Inca civilisation and so much more. "It is because Pizarro was a drunken lout, and illiterate." He has been ranting for a while now. "But" he continues, "I am very lucky. Do you know why? Because I will be 52 next week, and I am still alive."

The average life expectancy of the male population in Potosi is 45. That Luis' seven children still have a father is unusual, but after almost 40 years working in the silver mines of Cerro Rico, his breathing is becoming wheezy, and his skin gradually darkening -- sure signs that death is not far off. The pulmonary wing of the Hospital Obrero in Potosi does a brisk trade in patients with silicosis, a disease which progressively eats away the lungs. The miners of Cerro Rico work eight, sometimes 12 hours a day breathing the dust created by dynamite blasts and fumes from the arsenic that coats the tunnel walls inside the mines. There are no air filters, and masks are impractical at an altitude where oxygen is scarce, in temperatures deep inside the mountain that can reach 40 [degrees] C. Nor are there regulations. Miners can be as young as ten years old, and can work in this environment for as many hours, as many days of the week as they need. The only regulatory factor is economic: more minerals, more money; no production, no food.

Cerro Rico has been mined for 450 years now. Its wealth was discovered in the autumn of 1544 by one Diego Huallpa, who grazing his herd of llamas on the side of the mountain known to the Incas as Sumaj Orcko, meaning Beautiful Mountain, was forced to take shelter from a storm in one of the caves that dotted the mountainside. Lighting a fire against the intense cold, Diego noticed snap, crackle and popping sounds coming from the hot rock -- tell-tale signs of the presence of silver ore.

It was not long before the Spaniards had corrupted the name of the town he founded at the foot of the mountain from Potocchi-- the Quechua word for thunder -- to Potosi and changed the name of the mountain itself to better reflect their interest in it. Indeed, so rich did Cerro Rico prove to be that the Spanish colonists dreamt of building a bridge of solid silver all the way from Potosi to Madrid. Far-fetched perhaps, but by the early 17th century Potosi was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world, supplying the Spanish Crown with untold riches. In 1610 Potosi had a population of 160,000, compared to 110,000 in Madrid. London was a village in comparison, Tokyo barely existed.

The extraction of the silver claimed the lives of an estimated eight million Inca and African slaves. The native Indian men were experienced miners and proved hardier than their African counterparts, who were susceptible to disease and the cold of this harsh and foreign land. …

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