The Spanish created a forced-labor system, the mita, putting to work an estimated 3 million Indians over the next 250 years. And what they produced — up to 40,000 tons of silver – provided a steady stream of riches to Spain.
The mountain was so rich that throughout the colonial period, miners could find 50 pounds of silver for every 100 pounds of rock, said Carlos Serrano, a historian and metallurgist here. The miners simply followed the veins, he said, cutting into them and extracting the silver.
“At first, they even worked under open sky,” Serrano said. Then they began to go underground — deeper and deeper and at an ever higher cost, totaling hundreds of thousands of lives over the centuries, victims of cave-ins, beatings by their overlords and exhaustion.
Those familiar with how the mines are run today say the environment is little better. With dozens of deaths each year inside the mountain, miners long ago came up with a brutally fitting moniker for their workplace: The mountain that eats men.
“What’s happening inside the mine is medieval,” Serrano said.
The mines have no lighting, no safety regulations or inspectors, no modern rail cars, and no pumped-in oxygen, leaving miners to inhale a fine, deadly dust.
“With these lungs, at night I can’t even sleep anymore,” said Elogio Tola, who started here at 16 and is now 45, old for this mountain. “When you start to cough now, you cannot stand it like when you’re young.”
Those who work here — including hundreds of boys, some as young as 14 — are under no illusions.
Chewing wads of coca to ward off hunger and exhaustion, some heft huge bags of rocks to the surface on their backs. Smaller, nimbler miners specialize in burrowing into tiny crevices to place dynamite charges. Most spend the workday like their ancestors did: breaking through rock with a hammer and a heavy iron chisel.
For their troubles, most earn a paltry $14 a day, even as a commodities boom is generating far more earnings than in the past.
“For us, there’s nothing,” said Wilber Marino, 41, sweat covering his bare chest, as he took a break in one dark cavern to talk about his life. “It’s for the boss. We work like mules. We work here like slaves.”
The paradox is that since the 1980s, when the state-run mine laid off thousands, the mining here has been carried out by cooperatives controlled by the miners.
But the 35 cooperatives that now mine mostly lead and zinc are unregulated pay no taxes, and critics say they exploit those miners who aren’t lucky or shrewd enough to have become co-op bigwigs.
“They’re called cooperatives, but they’re not really cooperatives,” said Celestino Condori, head of a local group of activists, the Potosi civic committee, which works to modernize the mines. “They are companies with peons.”
‘Another world down here’
On a recent day, tourists from as far away as the United States and Italy got a brief, if exhausting, taste of what it’s like.
They lowered themselves through dark, craggy holes and down wobbly ladders. At one point, they were left panting after helping miners load an old iron rail car with rocks.
“It makes me grateful for what I have,” said Ciaran McGettigan, 24, a recent university graduate from Australia. “It’s just another world down here.”
It’s also a world that’s unlikely to improve soon. But the miners say they’ll never abandon Rich Mountain, no matter how unstable.
“We have to continue to work here,” said Zenon Guzman, 33, who began at age 12. “Where are so many people going to go?”