Karen Hudson-Edwards reports for Science:
Alicia Quispe is preparing to go to work in the adobe hut she shares with her mother, Rosa, and sister, Evelyn. The hut, located on the outskirts of the Bolivian town of Potosí, has no windows, running water, or electricity. As she walks to the job site, she carries stones to throw at potential rapists and chews coca leaves to ease the effects of the 4500-meter altitude. When she arrives, she will go underground to mine silver in galleries no more than 2.5 m high and 3 m wide.
The air she breathes is laden with toxic arsenic and lead. Acidic water drips on her clothes and slowly dissolves them. She prays that she will not be killed by rockfalls, as tens of thousands of others have been. As a safeguard, she offers coca leaves, cigarettes, and alcohol to statues of the gods of the mountain: El Tío (“Uncle”), Lord of the Underworld, and Pachamama, a fertility goddess.
Alicia works in the Cerro Rico de Potosí, a mountain in the southern highlands of Bolivia also known as “la montaña que devora hombres” (“the mountain that eats men”)—only men, because, according to tradition, women do not belong in the mines. In The Mountain That Eats Men, journalist Ander Izagirre gives vivid descriptions of Alicia’s life and work, supplementing these anecdotes with fascinating accounts of the history and politics of the mines that crisscross the Cerro Rico de Potosí.
Alicia—a pseudonym used for the young woman’s protection—started work as a miner at age 12. At that time, she was paid 20 pesos (around $2) a night. When the book’s story begins, she is 14 and working for no pay to settle a debt that her mother incurred. She is allowed to work in the mines because, officially, her job does not exist.
Alicia and her co-workers mine the rich silver-tin-lead-zinc vein deposits of Cerro Rico, which have been exploited since the Spanish invasion of 1545. Beginning in the late 1500s and continuing until the early 1800s, a system of forced mining labor exploited the efforts of tens of thousands of indigenous people in Peru and Bolivia. Many worked underground for as long as a week, surviving on stale bread and coca leaves. Those on the surface were exposed to poisonous mercury, which was used to process silver. Tens of thousands died.
The silver harvested during this period was melted into bars and taken over land and then by sea to Spain. Silver was the backbone of the Spanish empire, Izagirre explains, traded for luxuries such as taffeta and silk and used to pay debts and wage war. More than 35,000 tons of silver were removed from Cerro Rico between 1545 and 1825, a quantity that today would be worth $17 billion.
The region’s major mines were nationalized in 1952, and contracts and security measures were instituted for the workers. No children worked in the mines. In 1985, the price of tin—now the main metal extracted from Cerro Rico—dropped. The mines were privatized with aid from the World Bank and the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and 23,000 miners were laid off. Mining equipment and infrastructure were left to rust.
Today, half of Bolivia’s mining output is extracted by cooperatives consisting of a small number of members and a larger group of casual laborers who work without contracts or security. The latter includes between 3800 and 13,000 children, most of whom will not live past 35.
By the end of the book, Alicia is 16. She continues to live with her mother and sister in the hut above Potosí. Her father, Nicolás, a violent man who beat her mother and her brother, died at age 34 from silicosis. Rosa was left with no widow’s pension.
Despite her circumstances, Alicia has hope and ambition. She is president of the local young people’s mining society. She continues to go to school and once again earns money from mining; her mother’s debt has been paid off. She would like to be a bookkeeper one day, but for now, she is still tied to the Cerro Rico.
Mining is still an important part of today’s global economy; however, our modern paradigm emphasizes sustainability: mining that is profitable but protects the environment and human rights and health. As Izagirre shows, places such as Cerro Rico de Potosí have a considerable way to go to achieve this.