- I'm not crazy about tight spaces.
- I have heard about mining accidents all over the world.
- I really like being able to breathe fresh air.
These are 3 great reasons to not do what I did. But despite all of these reasons, I decided to visit a working mine in the small city of Potosí, Bolivia. Though my family visited "mines," when I was a child, if my memory serves, they were really more like shallow caves that had long since stopped being used. They in no way prepared me for my "Day in the Life of a Miner."
This mine, however, is very much functioning. The main metals extracted from the mountain are silver, tin, zinc and lead, which are sent all over the world. The mines of Potosí are cooperative (there are 16 in this one mountain), whereby each person sort of invests in a certain area, and receives an appropriate percentage of the profits when all the materials are sold. It sounds pretty complicated, actually, with different social levels: bosses, workers, daily hires... profits are split with specific algorithms. Plus, it's risky for those investing, as it is subject to the ups and downs of the international market.
I'm trying to be a more informed consumer, so though I was nervous, it felt like something I needed to see. I wanted to understand what working conditions are like for miners and from where some of the many materials we consume originate. So, I signed up for a tour, and suited up in a nylon jumpsuit, dust mask, helmet, headlamp and rubber boots. We also brought bags of coca leaves (a popular snack, energizer and appetite suppressant) as well as large bottles of soda as gifts for the miners. She encouraged us to speak with the miners, to ask them questions, "but," she said, "don't ask them if they like their jobs. No one likes to work in the mines." That sentence clung to me for the duration of the tour.
|Suited up, and ready to walk into the mine. It was at this moment that I needed to turn off all the |
voices of reason screaming in my head, and to consciously ignore the dangers.
|Next, the rock is gathered up in a large truck and delivered to the smelting houses where it is weighed, |
to know how much to pay the miners.
|Here we are going in the mouth of the mine. This small entrance is deceiving. It doesn't give any sign that there are tons of different splitting tunnels inside, leading us to walk for a few hours without stopping!|
|Here I am, right at the entrance of the mine, my camera wrapped in a plastic bag at my side|
Our tour guide, a petite and gruff woman of Quechuan descent who stood at about 5', knew all of the various tunnels well, pointing out points of interest along the way and greeting the various miners we encountered. Her small frame easily maneuvered the low ceilings, but for myself (5'7") and a very tall gentleman in the tour with me, the at times under 5' clearance was tough. More than once I whacked my head on a pipe, low hanging support beam of the rock ceiling itself. Hence the helmets.
|This was my first picture taken inside the mine. It was just myself and one other tourist with the guide, |
so the small group allowed up to move swiftly.
|For safety, all of the explosives are stored together to prevent accidents, about 100m in from the mouth of the mine.|
|At various points as we walked through the tunnels, you could see deep holes like this one, leading 70-160 meters down. The climb down into these narrow passages to collect the raw materials.|
|Once rock is collected from these deep side passages, it has to be hoisted up to the main tunnel where it is loaded into a cart to be wheeled outside. This winch is hoisted by just one person, but can hold up to 100kg of rock.|
|Rock by rock, these large carts are loaded, and are then pushed by the runners, |
wheeling their heavy load along the metal tracks.
We arrived late to the mines, around 10am. Most miners begin their day between 3-4 in the morning when the air quality is still pretty good. But as you can imagine, over the course of the day, the air gets thicker and thicker. These following pictures are from the deepest part of the mine that we reached before turning back. You can see how thick the air is, filled with an extremely fine, and dangerous powder., a mixture of the rock itself and the remnants of the explosives used. By the end of the day, the men are literally covered with this dust, making the look as if they wore light grey, skin tight, body suits.
After my visit to the mines I am blessed with a new appreciation of the simplest things: fresh, clean air while at work, sunlight on my skin, my physical safety, job security, and the chance to do something I enjoy. I hope that I never forget that.