If you are strong enough at 12 you are ready to start your life in the mine. The oficcial age is eighteen but since the mining in Bolivia is not controlled by the state it’s not uncommon to start well before entering your teens. In the mine where you will work 8-24 hours a day for the rest of your (probably quite short) life depending on the work load, you are forbidden to consume any type of foods. Therefore the miners start their day with a heavy breakfast followed by the only things you are aloud to bring with you in the mine; cocaleaves, 96% alcohol, cigarettes and ofcourse, the dynamite you need to do your days work. The temperature in the mine is 45 degrees celcius.
The coca leaves stills your hunger, keeps you alert and prevents you from getting tired. All theese items are sold in small shops around the mining area. Whilst in Sweden you’re not allowed to buy alcohol under the age of 20, children the age of 5 will easily purchase dynamite potent enough to take out 40-90 square centimeters of solid rock for their parents or older siblings in Potossi, Bolivia.
It’s cold and wet when we enter the mine. The brown water reaches up above our ancles and we start our descend down towards the underground. The entry is covered with lama blood, all smeared on the wall afte having sacrificed lamas here to keep the workers safe. Three lamas are sacrificed here every year.
As we descend, the space is shrinking and after a few minutes it’s no longer possible to stand up straight. It gets dusty and very difficult to breath. Allmost everyone is caughing and one person in our group decides to leave the mine. When we ask what’s making it so difficult to breath they tell us it’s because of the arsenic. It’s a heavy struggle not to panic when we hear that fatal accidents are common in the narrow tunnles. Actually I panic several times, its a nightmare for a semi-claustrophobic. It’s a nightmare for anyone. We see pieces of men’s clothing placed in chosen spots together with symbols and colorful ribbons. We dare not to ask why – and we don’t really have to.
The life expectancy of a miner is 55-60 years old. At 50 most get untreatable lung diceases. The monthly salary is approximately 100 euros. When we come closer to the center of the mountain the panic kicks in. We now have to crawl trough the tunnles to get to the god of the mine where we will do a ritual before finally exiting after 1.5 hours in hell – and we’we only seen a small part of it. Turning back isn’t really an option anymore so we continue to the cave where the god of the mine shall be present.
When we arrive we are greated by the devil. The god of the mine has nothing to do with the god of the christian religion. Here we sacrifise cocaleaves, alcohol and cigarettes to the devil who has a corpse of a baby lama at his feet, and pray for a safe ascend up to the daylight. We finish the ritual with a sip of (almost) pure alcohol and we finally start our way back. It’s without doubt one of the most unpleasant experiences I have ever had, but a very important one. Human rights are long gone here in the mines of Potossi and despite the fact that it was a horrible experience, I am grateful to learn how incredibly priviliged we are.