I went down a private mine in Potosi yesterday. The mine was once government owned but it has now been privately owned since the 1990's. It was quite a nerve-racking experience, especially after I discovered on the way there that there are approximately 200 cave-ins somewhere in the mountain each year.
Reassuringly, the guide told me 'it's like a big piece of edam cheese in there, and there's a lot of pressure from locals for miners to stop working there'
Fortunately, the most dangerous parts of the mine are at the very top levels, and we were at the base of the mountain where the rock is not as wet and the predominant mineral is zinc. At the top though, there is more valuable silver, and miners regularly risk their lives to obtain it.
We put on overalls, boots, a hard hat and headlamp and ventured in to the mines. It was exactly how you'd imagine an old mine out of some western film; iron rails on the ground for trolleys to whizz along on, with wooden rafters supporting the roof and a line of bare light bulbs disappearing around the corner.
The air got hotter and dustier the further we walked, and my breathing got heavier as I struggled to get oxygen. Suddenly, a distant rumble prompted the guide to shout,
'Trolley! Quickly, get to the side! Come on!'
Like a herd of panicked antelope we all started rushing around to try and find a cove to squeeze into at the side. I must admit I was genuinely scared for my life as the approaching rumble got louder and I still hadn't got to safety. To my relief I squeezed into a spot, then as I saw the trolley approach, pulled by miners, travelling slowly at about 4 miles per hour I felt a bit stupid. Then again, everyone was the same - in the dark, unfamiliar environment we were all paranoid.
The guide pointed to a tunnel of the side of the main track, just big enough to crawl through, and on our hands and knees we followed behind. The tunnel climbed up and down, and at one point we had to crawl on our bellies to get through a tiny dark gap. We reached an opening and some miners, with sacks of rocks on their back, scuttled past. Our guide gave them some water and cocoa leaves we had brought as presents.
The guide congratulated us on getting past the hardest part 'many tourists turn back at that point' he said. For me, however, the most dangerous part was still to come. As we descended a ladder to get back on to another rail track, there came a call from above and the guide shouted for me to stay where a was. A few seconds later and a huge wooden support rafter fell from above, right between me and the rest of the group ahead. 'Quickly' the guide shouted and the rest of us ran past the beam to catch up with the rest of the group.
We stopped for a while with a resting miner, and the guide gave him some more of our gifts. His job was to shovel the contents of each 2 ton trolley into a pile where it would be winched up the following day. He had to move 40 tons of rubble before leaving. I helped him shovel for a bit, and after 5 minutes I was absolutely knackered. I'd done my fair share of shoveling saving up for this trip, but down there with no oxygen, in the hot dusty environment I could hardly breath. It was an eye opening experience, these miners have to be really tough to cope with the conditions. When you think there are kids as young as 15 down there helping their dads, its like going back to the 1900's.
The guide told us that this guy has it easier than most. To extract the minerals the miners have to make holes in the side of the rock, then, place dynamite in there, run and then shovel the rubble created into the trolleys to be to sent of for processing. These holes can me made in one of two ways; either by hand - a process which produces less dust but is slower, or with pneumatic machinery - fast, but very, very dusty. A miner using machinery can make 400 Bolivianos a day (£40), which is a lot of money for a Bolivian. However, these miners have a life expectancy of 10 years before developing the fatal 'black lung'. Our guide's uncle died of cancer at 37.
This isn't a 'nice' tour if you're thinking of doing it, but it was definitely a big shock to see the conditions that some people work in every day. The organization is structured in such a way that it takes 3 years of working in the mines to become a 'member'. Then, after working there longer, you can work your way up to the position of leader. You can pass you're leadership position on to your son when you die or are no longer able to work, and so - because of the time and effort invested by fathers in the mines - you have situations where families work and die for generations in these mines. Our guides father worked as a leader, and he explained the pressure he faced from his family to continue in his father's footsteps.
We saw a shrine to the Devil, the tradition of offering him presents; llama sacrifices, cocoa leaves, cigarettes etc can be traced back to the Spanish, who tried to use the devil to instill fear in the Indians taking silver from the mines. The symbol had an opposite effect, as the workers didn't see him as a 'bad' God. Rather, one to appease with presents in exchange for less accidents and the discovery of better mineral deposits. Even today, you'd never hear a miner exclaim for God - this is strictly the devils domain.
Before heading off, we witnessed the heart juddering demonstration of a dynamite explosion. I know I wouldn't want to be in a mine when one went off.