Friday, May 7, 2010

Work, Collapse Or No Collapse

Bright and early up at the mine, I arrived at some arguments and then a swift exodus down the mount. Where to? I asked Felipe, running alongside him. A la marcha. Duh.

Some things I forgot about Bolivia:

1. There are marches always, for every reason and by every constituency.
2. The toilet paper is pink.
3. Marching bands are ubiquitous and appreciated always.

Yesterday, when I was at the mine, the heads of all of the co-ops were meeting. They must have decided about this march then, because when Felipe and I ran down to the miners market, where people were lining up, the city was already a little paralyzed and totally surprised but the mass of miners.

Today's march had to do with the [potential] closing of the Cerro Rico, the mountain that supports all of the co-ops in Potosi. Since 2008, the State has been attempting to carry out a geological study of the mountain to investigate its condition. 500 years of haphazard, unplanned and intense mining has left the perfectly conical hill collapsing into itself under the weight of its tailings. The profile of the mountain, cherished to the point of being illuminated every night by white lights dotting its mirrored slopes, is losing its perfect symmetry and smooth, unnatural looking silhouette. Even from when I was here about three years ago, the mountain looks different - sunken, ragged.

The problem, historically and to an extent even now, is that miners working inside the Cerro Rico did not plan or coordinate it exploitation. They simply followed the veins with their hammers, chiseling away supports and throwing dynamite at the rock without wondering who was doing the same below or above them. The result is a jumbled anthill of shafts, unmapped and unsustainable.

The study was terminated before completion due to lack of funds. Some insist that funds have nothing to do with it; Evo Morales, who in his second bid for President was supported by the wealthy miners of Potosi (and elsewhere), is just doing a favor to this constituency, they say. If the study is completed, it will almost inevitably show that the Cerro Rico mines are dangerous, in risk of collapsing, and should not be mined any further. This is not something the mine owners want to hear. Neither is it something the actual miners can hear, what with their limited options for work outside of the mine. So collapse or no collapse, work must go on.

The miners filled the narrow streets with bodies and posters. Being miners, they also brought dynamite and detonated it along with loud fireworks as the walked. The only warning I ever saw was the men putting their fingers to their ears, in anticipation of the explosion. I walked alongside, taking pictures. Every time I brought out my huge camera the miners would unfailingly yell, "Tiro a la choca!" which translates roughly as Throw some dynamite at the white girl! When two professional-looking types crossed the marching line, with shined, matching leather briefcases in hand, there was an uproar and a man chased them down the street with a stick of dynamite.

At the plaza, speeches and ice cream. I wrote in my proposal that the mine is close to its end and this may be the last generation to mine it, but I didn't really believe it. I mean, it's close, I thought, but not imminently so. But here, from day one, its doom is all over the place, hanging over the city and talked about constantly. For example, all of the miners I see are older - younger men don't go into the mines now because there is no future there. A mining museum has opened in a defunct shaft. The palliris, women who comb the tailings for any leftover mineral that the miners left behind, are few and those that remain are ancient. A processing center, opened in 2009, is processing the tailings, not even buying new ore. And on and on.

So the question is, will the government find funds and balls to finish the study? Will it then find means to make work for the 10,000 miners that currently work in the Cerro Rico?

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