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The miners of Potosi dare this cigar-smoking devil daily.
Gregory Rewega

Encounter with The miners of Potosi

The miners of Potosi eat their coca leaves one by one. They place the stem between their front teeth and pull it through with their fingers, cleaving the juicy waxy leaflets, which go to join a pile that they store – like a cow collects its cud – in their cheeks. The miners of Potosi will each emerge from a frighteningly small hole up to 10 times in a 12-hour day to spit and replenish this revitalizing mouthful. They do not eat anything else while they work: the devil will not allow it. A proclamation in Quechua (the local Indian dialect that is the common language in the mine) is etched in stone at the entrance to a network of honeycomb tunnels. It reads ‘The fallen angel defied god, but beneath this rock, we defy the odds’. And they do – every day – to spite the hellhole inside.

Sitting on a barren ridge in the Bolivian Andes, at 3,976 metres above sea-level, Potosi is the highest city in the world – a city that owes its existence to a mountain full of minerals which have been eaten away by the hands of men since 1545. Santa Rosa – The Rich Mountain – was first mined for a colonial interest in its silver – most of which ballasted galleons sailed back to Spain. When the silver became scarce the men who worked the lease turned their hands to the other minerals that lay beneath.

‘ It’s a little about luck,’ says Pedro Soles, ‘and a lot about defiance. After all, this is our mountain; its tunnels are lined with the blood of our ancestors.’

Pedro leads the way through the mine. Narrow corridors open out to sullen hollows. Workers crouch – sweat pours from their brows; coca leaf bulges in their cheeks as they work by the dim light of carbide lamps hammering dynamite holes into thin veins of mineralization. Pedro says that the miners work for a corporation which pays them according to the quality of ore they extract. The 10 tons of ore that an experienced worker can remove in a good week translates to a meager $150: not enough to justify a move to more modern, mechanical mining techniques. As a consequence, many of these miners will develop

the debilitating disease silicosis in their early forties. But this tenuous survival is pushed to one side by a humble unity and pride.

Though primarily Catholic in faith, when the miners enter the mountain they pay homage to a deity whom they refer to as ‘Uncle’. An abandoned shaft has been turned into a shrine. Perched atop a rocky pedestal sits a demonic looking clay statue, an effigy of the devil; complete with real rams horns and a human-hair goatee beard. Workers pass every day to shower the statue with offerings of fresh coca leaves, cigarettes and cheap raw alcohol. The spirit is 95-per-cent proof and the miners drink it neat – pure – in order to entice the devil’s favour in finding ‘pure’ ore veins.

Wide smiles fill the dimly lit den and the babble of Quechua rings out proud. ‘Ahhh-yeee, the devil be damned, for today I am a rich man,’ yells a miner, and the others all whistle, scream and laugh out loud.

‘ He’ll not take my soul,’ yells another as he throws a cup of the heady spirit into the effigy’s face. Then Pedro turns smiling and says: ‘There is always time for jokes and laughter, we’re more than a team: we’re brothers.’

Later in the afternoon the local soccer team takes on the Bolivian national team. The ground is packed with people, most supporting Potosi. But as the national team is held in such high esteem a jovial mood prevails. A group of police in riot gear stand by the barbed-wired pitch ready to deal with any shift in the mood. The Andean sun bears down, harsh and strong, in stark contrast to a chilly wind blowing from the mountain.

The miners of Potosi
talked to
Gregory Rewega

Then after the game, through the centre of the city, there is a parade. A large brass band leads a select group of politicians and dignitaries who walk beneath an embroidered banner. They are followed by a cross-section of the working city: police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, bus drivers. Bringing up the rear, lolling beneath a nondescript homemade banner, walk the miners. The dusty, sweat-strewn men who were at work in the mountain earlier that morning are now attired in their Sunday finest: a pair of secondhand jeans or a worn suit coat, many times mended. Faces are freshly shaven. Hair is neatly parted. They walk with their heads held high, sharing cigarettes, cracking jokes, laughing out loud; throwing insolence towards the formalities of the event and indifference to a questionable future.

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New Internationalist issue 361 magazine cover This article is from the October 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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