Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Mines of Potosí

I was told that visiting the cooperative mines of Potosí, Bolivia is an experience that should not be missed. I would agree, but it is more of an intense humbling experience than a fun tour. Describing the conditions in which the miners work is difficult, but it is the closest to hell as I can imagine.

Upon entering the mine, large chunks of ice hang from the ceiling inches above your head, but as you move deeper into the mine the temperature rises, the spaces get smaller, and thick humidity makes movement extremely uncomfortable. Naturally light is at a minimum and is almost exclusively provided by headlamps, though electric cables coated in thick layers of minerals do stretch deep into the mines. In many places, crawling on hands and knees is necessary to reach the areas where mining actually takes place. Water and minerals leak down from the ceiling often creating large pools of murky water on the narrow foot path. Our guide told us that toxic materials like arsenic, sulfuric acid, and asbestos occur naturally inside the mines. She even pointed out arsenic minerals growing on the walls. Holes for dynamite are dug manually and explosions shake the mountain every few minutes. There are a large number of mines within the mountain, and all operate independently meaning that no one knows when an explosion in another part of the mountain is going to occur. With structural supports like the one in the picture below, collapsing tunnels is something that seems imminent.

The work that miners do is strenuous and equipment is basic. Pneumatic hammers are the only power equipment used, everything else is done by hand including hauling the large bins full of minerals to the mine entrance.

Four men work together to haul minerals out of the mine

I gave them that soda, but the present seemed a bit weak considering the situation

Miners working to replace a popped tire on their wheelbarrow

Due to the conditions in the mine, especially constant exposure to toxic materials, the average life expectancy of miners is around 45 years. The next time I start to complain about going to work at a comfortable, non-physically demanding, slightly boring job, or get stressed about commuting to work in traffic in my car listening to music with the A/C or heat on, I'm going to remember these guys and the hell they go through every day for a monthly wage that many people in developed countries make in a day.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Where I Am and Where I've Been