The Mountain that Eats Men


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



Wedgwoord sammples

Wedgwood, one of the most precious pottery styles in the world. Not only has the unique design brought prestige but it has been one of the world’s greatest collectibles.

Surely the story of Wedgwood pottery has been one of the remarkable histories of the world.

“Wedgwood china tableware and giftware patterns are amongst England’s finest. Synonymous with beauty, craftsmanship and innovation for over 250 years.”

From: Wedgwood

or visit the Wedgwood Museum site to learn more.

Wedgwood Museum closure condemned by Unesco

Museum listed as one of world’s top 20 cultural assets due to be sold off to pay £134 pension deficit after high court ruling

The Wedgwood Museum is one of just 20 items on Unesco's Memory of the WOrld register. Photograph: Getty Images

The head of a Unesco committee that shortlisted a British museum as one of the world’s top 20 cultural assets has condemned a high court judgment that, one year on, is forcing it to close.

The Wedgwood Museum in Stoke-on-Trent is to be broken up and sold to pay off a £134m pension deficit, following a high court judgment in December.

As well as thousands of ceramics produced by Josiah Wedgwood, one of the world’s greatest pottery manufacturers, the museum boasts an archive of more than 100,000 documents and manuscripts, and masterpieces by Stubbs, Romney and Reynolds. Such is the collection’s historic significance that questions will be asked in the Houses of Parliament this month.

David Dawson, who was responsible for listing the museum on Unesco’s Memory of the World Register, described the collection as “one of the most complete ceramic manufacturing archives in the world”.

“The nation cannot afford the loss of this piece of its heritage,” he said. “[The Wedgwood collection] was selected as one of just 20 items on the register, along with objects such as the Bill of Rights and a copy of King Charles I’s death warrant.”

The high court ruled in December that the collection was an asset of Waterford Wedgwood Potteries, which went bust in 2009, and could therefore be sold to pay off their creditors, the largest of which is the Pension Protection Fund.

The ruling was an unintended consequence of legislation to protect employee pensions after the Robert Maxwell scandal of the 1990s.The museum had not been linked to the company for almost half a century but has been penalised because five of its employees were part of the Pottery Group Pension Plan’s member scheme.

An early day motion tabled by Tristram Hunt, the historian and MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, expresses grave concern. It condemns the legislation as in need of urgent amendment and urges the government to save the collection. The Tory peer Lord Flight has also tabled an question in the Lords for 14 February.

The museum was founded by a family known for its altruism. Simon Wedgwood, one of Josiah’s descendants, told the Guardian the museum held unequalled correspondence from Industrial Revolution figures over 250 years.

“The loss to the nation and the world would be incalculable,” said Wedgwood. “It is tragic that recent legislation can mean that the assets of a bona fide museum can effectively be seized by the Pension Protection Fund because of such a tenuous link through a handful of employees.”

Martin Levy, the London dealer and former member of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, said that the collection’s sale would plug only a fraction of the £134m black hole: “A small gain for the pensioners will be a long-term loss for the country – no more than a pyrrhic victory.”

Source: The Guardian

%d bloggers like this: