With no controls over the buying, selling or usage of dynamite, plus many mine workers drunk on 98% proof alcohol and/or high on chewing coca leaves (cocaine), it is no surprise Bolivia’s Potosi silver mine is one of the most dangerous mines in the world.
Even today, on average the South American mine experiences a major accident every day, with at least three of the approximately 12 000 miners killed every month, mainly due to tunnel collapses and/or toxic gases.
And with the underground atmosphere polluted by toxic chemicals, most miners succumb to asbestosis or silicosis after working for only 10 years in the mines.
Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world by elevation at a nominal 4,090m, with its high altitude presenting problems for locals and tourists alike.
After the Spanish discovered silver in Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) on the outskirts of the city in 1544, Potosi grew into the largest and most opulent city in the Americas, with a population that exceeds 200 000 people.
Today Potosi is a gritty mining town, a mere shadow of its former glory.
The miners, all men, still work in appalling conditions, the ceilings are low and the passages are steep and muddy.
As temperature varies from below freezing to 45ºC, working conditions have changed little since the mine opened, with most work still performed by hand.
My guide and translator in the mine, Maria Joaquino, said the miners chew large quantities of coca leaves (as observed by the huge bulge in their cheeks) due to the nature of their work.
"Firstly, it helps with working at altitude, secondly because it absorbs some of the airborne toxins, and lastly, it reduces their appetite which is beneficial because miners do not eat for the entire 12 hour shift that they work."
She explained there are no toilets in the mines, and advises visitors to avoid licking their fingers because of the trace elements of asbestos and arsenic found in the mines.
Joaquino went on to say most miners earn around $10 per week, "but slightly more for the dynamiters".
The miners are organised into cooperatives and lease their respective sections of the mine from the government for a fee of 6% of earnings.
The mining companies then simply purchase the refined minerals.
The miners, the large majority of which are of indigenous Quechan descent, have to organise their own tools and security devices.
As a result safety precautions are essentially limited to hand gloves and hard hats with ineffective battery powered headlamps.
There is no lighting or electricity in the mine.
However according to local superstition the devil does live there, and to protect them while underground, miners leave gifts of cigarettes, coca leaves, beer and llama blood to small statues of the devil located close to the over 200 mine entrances.
With no safety standards to adhere to, mine props are worryingly widely spaced and consist solely of local timbers, many showing obvious signs of age.
The ore is loaded, by hand, onto small trucks running on well worn rails (broken in many places) with two men struggling to push the loaded truck – weighing at least a ton – through the narrow unlit tunnel out of the mine, to be wheelbarrowed onto the waiting truck.
Hearing, and feeling, dynamite explosions further away from where we huddled in the mine, Joaquino explained that ‘word-of-mouth’ was the only warning when other miners dynamited their area.
Soon after the truck pushers warned our area was due ‘soon’ for dynamiting.
We quickly exited the mine.
It was only when we were safely outside did she explain that ‘only’ five tourists had been killed in the mine, and finished the tour by detonating a stick of dynamite a couple of metres away from us!
More than just silver
Previously only silver was extracted from the mountain, but now, all minerals are mined including tin and copper, which has created a very dangerous situation for the mine as most of the mountain itself has been actually extracted.
The bulk extraction of ore from the swiss-cheese maze of tunnels dug out over 500 years of mining has perilously weakened the mountain.
Joaquino said that over 11 years ago, US engineers predicted the whole mine would collapse from over-mining in just seven years.
"It is just a matter of time before the entire mountain collapses," she said.
However, according to reports the Cerro Rico region is still considered the world’s largest silver deposit and is believed to hold 5.5 million metric tons of ore and contains more than 938 130kg of silver.
Additionally the ore is said to contain 250 004 tons of zinc and 72 377 tons of tin.
The reserves of just one of the veins alone is projected to be over 11 937 569 tons of ore.
This translates into more than 208 000 kilos of silver and close to 62 500 tonnes of zinc minerals.
The Potosi mine is owned by Comibol, Bolivia’s national mining company, and mined in a partnership with Franklin Mining, Bolivia S.A., a subsidiary company of Franklin Mining, Inc.
The company says it plans to increase silver production through the introduction of modern mining technology.
If this becomes reality, this could see Bolivia become one of the highest producers of silver in the world.
While the working conditions of this mine are shocking by today’s standards, during the period of the New World Spanish Empire they weredescribed as horrendous.
At first the Spanish masters used indigenous labourers in the mine, but as they were dying by the thousands, subjected to brutal working conditions and poisonous mercury vapours used in the mining process, the Spanish governors began importing African slaves to the mines to supplement the native workers.
These so-called ‘human mules’ also perished due to Spain’s feverish desire for silver. A life expectancy of less than one year was reaping a terrible human cost; mercury poisoning, mining accidents, exposure, and lung disease were all contributing factors. Once sent into the mine very few ever saw daylight again.
Overall, it is estimated over eight million African and indigenous workers died in the Potosi mines during Spain’s colonial reign.