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The Mountain that Eats Men

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Bolivia’s Cerro Rico mines killed my husband. Now they want my son

Potosí’s silver-lined ‘mountain that eats men’ is on the brink of collapse, threatening the lives and livelihoods of 15,000 miners

Bolivia’s cavernous Cerro Rico, also known as ‘rich hill’ and the ‘mountain that eats men’, looms over Potosí city. Photograph: Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty

It was the mountain that bankrolled Spain’s colonial empire, the Spanish Armada and the European Renaissance. The Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill, produced an estimated 2bn ounces of silver, making Potosí, the Bolivian city beneath it, the world’s largest industrial complex in the 16th century, according to the UN’s cultural body, which named it a world heritage site in 1987.

But last week, Unesco added Cerro Rico and Potosí to its list of endangered sites, owing to “uncontrolled mining operations” that risk “degrading the site”.

In 2011, after nearly 500 years of constant extraction, the mountain’s iconic summit was at risk of collapse. Engineers from the state mining company, Comibol, raced to save the 4,824-metre peak, filling a 50-metre-wide crater with ultra-light cement. There are plans to plug further gaps with mineral-stripped rocks, but, despite these measures, the summit continues to sink a few centimetres every year.

But Carlos Colque, Comibol’s general manager in Potosí, says there remains a risk of collapse as long as miners continue to work above the 4,400-metre mark in the labyrinth of tunnels that honeycomb the mountain. The silver mine remains Potosí’s economic mainstay. “We can’t kick the miners out and leave them without work, the government wants to relocate them but they say they want guarantees,” he says.

About 15,000 cooperative workers mine for silver, tin, lead and zinc in the mountain, which is pocked with hundreds of pitheads and criss-crossed with up to 20,000 tunnels. But the vast majority do not receive health insurance or pension benefits, and the cooperative sector routinely flouts basic safety laws.

“Cooperativism is not put into practice here,” said Jhonny Lally, who heads Potosí’s civic committee, an umbrella group of organisations and unions. “The bosses share the profits while those who work in the mines are just labourers, they’re as good as slaves with no insurance or benefits.”

The powerful cooperative sector is a key ally of President Evo Morales, who is seeking a third presidential term in October. The sector has grown in the past decade due to high international commodity prices. It generates 88% of mining employment and accounted for 48% of Bolivia’s $3.7bn mineral exports last year, according to state figures. Cooperative miners are exempt from paying taxes (compared with 37.5% paid by the private sector, plus royalties).

The work is precarious and dangerous. Many miners, including children as young as 11, brave toxic gases and the risk of mine collapses or electrocution with tools that have changed little since colonial times.

Dario hungrily devours a plate of rice and beef stew outside the Paillaviri mine at dawn. He has worked in the mine since he was 11. The 15-year-old, who is small for his age with a long, tinted fringe and a racking cough, says he can earn up to $300 a week, almost double Bolivia’s monthly minimum wage.

Inside the mine, a Comibol lift stands redundantly as workers descend using scores of wooden ladders into the myriad tunnels that extend more than a kilometre below. The company no longer mines in the mountain.

Jorge Palomino’s father was accidentally killed in the same tunnel that he and his brother and cousin continue to drill for tin. “If we die, our families will be on the street,” says the 33-year-old as he reaches into a bag of coca leaves and presses some into his cheek.

Palomino works with dynamite and a hydraulic drill. He would rather use new mining technology but says his cooperative cannot afford it. “If we have to do it with tooth and nail, we’ll get the mineral out,” he says.

Some historians estimate that up to 8 million men have died in the Cerro Rico since the 16th century, when indigenous and African slaves were forced by the Spanish to live in the tunnels they mined. Since then, the landmark, known as the “mountain that eats men”, has continued to live up to its fearsome reputation.

Paulina Ibeth Garabito, director of Musol, an organisation that helps miners’ widows, estimates that four workers are killed every month. While firm statistics are hard to find, police figures from 2010 and 2009 registered 22 and 19 deaths respectively from mining accidents.

Garabito says miner numbers are rising – as are the number of deaths – many of which are not registered. “The widows don’t get any compensation, the cooperatives do whatever they can to avoid paying out,” she says.

But more than mining accidents, the biggest killer is silicosis, an incurable lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of silica dust. Workers call it mal de la mina and, as few use protective masks, it is the biggest occupational hazard.

Vilma Menacho’s husband was 34 when he died from silicosis. She was left with two sons and massive a debt for his hospital treatment. She works as a miner’s cook by day; by night she guards a mine.

“At first we looked to each other for moral support; we had very low esteem,” says Menacho who runs a support group for miners’ widows in Potosí. “Our husbands had been very machista, we weren’t allowed to do anything or be involved much in society.”

She describes her “impotence and rage” that her 17-year-old son is now a miner due to the lack of alternative employment. “That’s how we lost our husbands and, because of our needs, our children go back down the mine.”

“Potosí is a mining town, it always has been and it always will be,” says Carlos Mamani, president of Potosí’s federation of cooperative miners. “If we stopped working, all economic activity in the town would be paralysed.”

He says the sector has not made enough profit to modernise mining practices, and working conditions cannot improve without more funding from the government.

Potosí’s grim but fascinating history has made tourism an important secondary industry. Former miners give tours of their former workplaces, while in the city’s red-tiled colonial centre tourists can visit religious buildings and the mint the Spanish used to count the silver ingots. Cerro Rico may no longer contain the riches it once did, but it continues to lure men to their deaths.

Source: The Guardian

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The Post Office’s best-kept secret

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Mail Rail: What is it like on the ‘secret’ Tube?

The mysterious underground world of London’s Mail Rail

Deep under the streets of the capital, a disused railway tunnel stretches for six miles. After being shut for a decade, there are now plans to reopen the London Post Office Railway – known to many as Mail Rail – as a tourist ride.

In a chilly central London railway depot, it feels as though Mail Rail’s workers suddenly upped and left and time has stood still since.

Thick dust has settled on discarded orange overalls, safety cones and an abandoned kettle and a musty smell lingers.

Hefty 1920s giant levered mechanical equipment sits idiosyncratically next to 1980s jumbo walkie-talkies, while industrial pipes and strips of peeling paint hang from the ceiling.

Loose cables wind up the walls alongside a 1989 safety bulletin notice, while an 1959 Ordnance Survey map of Holborn sits rolled up on a desk.

Locker doors have been left half open with used shower gel bottles and dirty towels hanging inside.

Mail Rail was approved by an Act of Parliament a century ago, and during its heyday its driverless trains carried 12 million postal items daily on the line stretching from East End’s Whitechapel to west London’s Paddington. But it was mothballed a decade ago.

You leave the depot and descend in a lift to the Mount Pleasant platform. You enter what feels a lot like a normal Tube platform, but the tunnels at each end are smaller, reducing to 7ft (2.1m) in diameter.

A tiny train sits on the track, one of 70 stored on the network, but this one has been specially adapted for passengers.

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Lots more story, history and many photos to see

 

Take a look inside the world’s largest cave

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Son Doong Cave in Vietnam – which is so big it contains a jungle and a river – is now open for public tours. But don’t expect it to become crowded: just 224 tourists will be permitted to visit this year

It’s so big you could fit a 40-storey skyscraper inside, but Son Doong cave remained undiscovered until a local man found it in 1991. Even then, no one explored beyond its vast entrance until British cavers visited in 2009. All photographs: Ran Deboodt

Ropes and harness are needed to get inside Son Doong, and any visitors will need to rappel 80 metres to reach the cave floor.

Pilot tours took place in August, but so far only 10 people have visited. Oxalis Adventures have been working closely with the government to ensure a sustainable future for the cave: this year they are able to take 224 tourists to Son Doong.

The first night of the six-day tour will see visitors camp near the Hand of Dog, a giant stalagmite said to resemble a dog paw.

Inside the cave is a huge river – but the source of it remains unknown. In March, a team from the British Cave Research Association, who first explored Son Doong, will return to try and shed more light on the cave’s many mysteries.

New species of plant have been discovered by scientists within the cave’s lush interior.

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Pyramid in Peru torn down by developers

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Officials lodge criminal complaints against two firms after building at El Paraiso, one of Peru’s oldest archaeological sites, destroyed

El Paraiso, the archaeological site some 40km north of Lima where the 20ft pyramid was torn down. Photograph: Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images

Real estate developers using heavy machinery tore down a 20ft (6m) tall pyramid at one of Peru’s oldest archaeological sites, cultural officials have said.

Rafael Varon, deputy minister of cultural patrimony, told reporters on Wednesday that the destruction occurred over the weekend at the ruins of El Paraiso, a few miles north of Peru’s capital, Lima.

He said his agency has lodged criminal complaints against two companies for the damage – identified as Alisol and Provelanz – and has moved to seize the equipment used. People who answered the telephone at both companies said no one was available to comment.

Peru’s tourism ministry says El Paraiso was built some 4,000 years ago and was a religious and administrative centre, long before the rise of the Inca culture encountered by the Spanish conquerors.

Marco Guilen, director of an excavation project at El Paraiso, said the people who tore down the pyramid “have committed irreparable damage to a page of Peruvian history”.

“We are not going to be able to know in what ways it was constructed, what materials were used in it and how the society in that part of the pyramid behaved,” said Guilen.

Varon said people apparently working for the two companies tore down one pyramid and tried to destroy three others, but were stopped by witnesses.

Mayor Freddy Ternero of San Martin de Porres, the town where the ruins are located, said the pyramids were sited in agricultural fields and were not guarded, though he said the minister of the interior sent police to protect it after the incident.

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If nothing else…

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The Pope will have a positive effect on tourism to and in Argentina.

In Pope Francis’s footsteps: a Jesuit tour of Argentina

Córdoba in central Argentina is usually overlooked by tourists heading to the country’s more famous attractions. But that could be about to change, thanks to Pope Francis, whose election has shone a light on the province’s atmospheric Jesuit estancias

Entrance to church in Córdoba’s UNESCO-listed Jesuit block. Photograph: Alamy

“The pope and I once had a fight,” says Nelso, miming fisticuffs with his hands. “But that was 30 years ago. Back when we were young and I had hair!” He slaps his balding head and laughs.

Nelso Lenarduzzi, charismatic and white-whiskered, is the director of the Jesuit Museum in Argentina‘s central province of Córdoba. We’re in the middle of a tour of his exhibition – which includes Jesuit tapestries and relics from long-lost local Indian religions – when he suddenly lets slip on his heated clash with the man now known as Pope Frances.

In the early 1980s, Jorge Bergoglio, then a relatively young priest acting on behalf of his superiors, visited the museum and announced he wanted to take 30 items back to a chapel in Buenos Aires province. Nelso was horrified as the priest listed some of the museum’s most-treasured pieces, including a valuable altar.

“We didn’t actually have a fist fight,” he admits, laughing again at the idea, but strong words were exchanged and Bergoglio would not budge. “Now, at least, I can say I’ve seen him at his toughest and I know he’s no pushover.”

The Vatican’s recent selection has shone a spotlight on Argentina. Yet although Bergoglio’s Argentinian life has been largely dissected – from his football allegiances to his politics – a lot less has been made of his Jesuit connection. For those interested in finding out about the country’s Jesuit history, Córdoba is probably the best place to start. This, after all, is where the order once had a base so powerful it was seen as a serious threat to early Spanish rule.

The province of Córdoba is famed for its warm, dry climate, and green, fertile sierras. At its heart is Argentina’s second city, also called Córdoba and nicknamed La Docta (or the learned one) on account of its large student population. Since 2000, the city has also boasted Unesco world heritage status, thanks to its Jesuit block, which includes a stone church, priests’ residences and one of the oldest universities in South America (1613).

Bergoglio lived within the block for two years in the 1990s and now his bespectacled face gazes back at you all over town: on a celebratory banner outside the church, on a caricaturist’s easel on a tourist-filled pedestrian walkway, and even on the pavement as a street trader sets out papal souvenirs in the late summer sun. Back in the late 16th century, the pope’s predecessors arrived here from Europe and set about spreading their scholarly branch of the Catholic faith. They were so successful and efficient in their work that the Spaniards ultimately withdrew funding, scared that they were forming a state within a state. So, to keep the funds flowing for their evangelistic work, the Jesuits came up with plan B: the working estancia.

Alta Gracia’s Jesuit estancia Photograph: Alamy

Five examples of these estancias still stand, scattered across these central plains. My first stop was Estancia Caroya, surrounded by green fields and orange trees, 44km north of the city. Its design is typical for the era: a colonial-style mansion, built around a courtyard, with arched walkways and its own chapel. The whitewash walls and terracotta roof certainly look attractive against the cloudless blue skies, but aesthetics were not the Jesuits’ main motivation. Estancias were working farms, heavily involved in the mule trade, and each plying its own specialist trade, from wine production to making bayonets.

Only one to two Jesuits would live onsite, with labour from hundreds of African slaves.

“This is something that was not talked about for years,” says Claudio Videla, director of the Caroya estancia. “It was a dark part of history. Slaves were considered sub-human. Even after their sons were freed, the next generation was sent to their deaths when they were put in the front line [in civil and foreign conflict].”

This explains why today’s Argentina has hardly any people of African descent, compared with Brazil or Uruguay.

Jesuits also worked with local indigenous populations, who received a wage (to prevent an uprising) and completed much of their artisan work. Look up to Córdoba’s cathedral, for example, and you see angels’ faces with Indian features, rather than traditional European cherubs.

I made it to three out of the five estancias on the tourist route: Caroya; neighbouring Jesús María (where I find Nesto’s museum); and finally, 35km south-west of Córdoba city, Alta Gracia, which squats at the start of the sierras, amid miles of cornfields.

Visiting the town of Alta Gracia gave me the chance to drop in on one of Argentina’s other famous sons. In the 1940s, the Guevara family moved to the province, hoping the dry air would help cure the asthma of their oldest, Ernesto. The boy, who grew up to be known as Che, is now depicted in a bronze statue on the family home’s front porch. Rooms of the small suburban home have been turned into a mini museum, featuring family photos and various memorabilia, including his last-ever diary entry before he was executed in the Bolivia jungle. Back in the early 2000s, this tiny museum might see about 5,000 visitors a year. Then, one day in 2006, two VIP guests popped in – Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. After that much-publicised appearance, annual visitor numbers shot up to 100,000.

A statue of Ernesto “Che” Guevara as a boy at his childhood home in Alta Gracia. Photograph: Alamy

It’s the mix of high-profile visits and Unesco recognition that has given Córdoba’s tourism a real boost in recent years. Once famed only for lomito (steak) sandwiches and fernet (the bitter Italian spirit drunk here as if it were water), the province is now trying to relaunch itself to appeal to the more sophisticated traveller.

 

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Venezuela & The Wary Tourist

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Venezuela has got to be one of the most fascinating countries on the planet. Certainly it is one of the most diverse, offering almost everything for the tourist and tourism in every area.

This morning I saw this question posed on BBC News…

So why aren’t tourists flocking to Venezuela?

Well, I can answer that even before reading the article, I can sum it up in one word, Chavez.

As long as Chavez and his policies preside over Venezuela tourists will stay away in droves.

Venezuela bids to beat bad image to win over tourists

Venezuela’s natural riches should be a tourist draw

It has the longest Caribbean coastline of any country and the world’s tallest waterfall, not to mention snow-capped Andean mountains and Amazon rainforest. Tourist paradise? Not Venezuela.

Considering the country’s size and natural attractions, tourist numbers are low.

In 2009, Venezuela received just over 600,000 international visitors, according to World Bank figures, compared to more than two million in neighbouring Colombia.

The majority came from Europe or North America, but less than half were on holiday. Venezuela’s Institute for National Statistics shows many were visiting family, on business or studying.

Venezuela’s annual tourism fair gets under way on Thursday and this year the country has teamed up with the UN’s World Tourism Organisation to make a special push to improve visitor numbers.

We want to “boost tourism as a means of development and cultural interaction,” a government statement said.

Angel Falls: Dramatic experience for the adventurous

Currency controls to stop Venezuelans investing abroad mean the official rate of exchange is poor for foreigners arriving with US dollars.

A sandwich and a bottle of water in a cafe in Caracas cost around $25 at the official rate.

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Venezuela simply is NOT tourist friendly.

“The government blames the international media for its inability to attract more visitors.”

Of course ‘the government,’ ergo Hugo Chavez blames the international media for giving Venezuela a bum rap. He is such an arrogant bastard, that he would never think that HE, and his policies, is the problem.

Venezuela has a reputation for violence and tourist kidnappings; but Rio de Janeiro has tourists being robbed and Colombia has much violence, but they don’t suffer in the same way that Venezuela has.

Why raises the question, why?

Simple, Rio de Janeiro may have drug dealers and Colombia may have FARC, but they don’t have Chavez.

It is true that Venezuela is probably the most beautiful and idyllic place that exists. But there has to be major changes in the tourist infrastructure before they will come. Simply holding a travel fair, changing slogans and saying ‘come’ will not work.

For a country like Venezuela to ‘boast’ 600,000 (remembering that only half that number are on holiday) tourists is nothing short of pathetic and a true reflection on what the world thinks of this paradise.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

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Ha Long Bay - Paradise of Nature

Ha Long Bay affords some of Vietnam’s most spectacular scenery, including beautiful limestone formations, rock arches, gin-clear water, virtually inaccessible lagoons, sheer cliffs, peaceful coves, eerie caves, secluded strips of white, powdery sand, and thousands of limestone islets.

Like sculpted cartoon characters, these islets are fancifully named: Frog Island, Face Island, the Isle of Wonders and the Isle of Surprise. Chinese junks glide over the teal-hued bay between the grottos, which are densely carpeted in neon-green ficas, mangrove and spiky cacti.

Pearl oyster farms are tucked into tight channels between the towering, limestone cliffs. Primitive floating fish hatcheries are spun across the waters between the grottos like neglected spider webs.

Source: The Wondrous

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