Mountains of Pain

For centuries the silver-rich Bolivian Andes have produced astonishing wealth —and an equal measure of human hardship

Chafed raw by persistent and bitterly cold winds, the flanks of Cerro Rico push naked and lifeless into the skies above southern Bolivia. It is no place for humans, yet this austere 15,680-foot Andean peak became the closest that the Spanish ever came to finding El Dorado in the New World, its slopes surrendering more than 25,000 tons of silver between 1545 and 1825. For the Quechua- and Aymara-speaking peoples, however, Cerro Rico became a hell of Dantean proportions, a seemingly insatiable beast that swallowed hundreds of thousands of Indian miners.

Over the course of a decade, Swiss photographer Jean-Claude Wicky made a dozen pilgrimages to Cerro Rico and other silver, gold and tin mines in the Bolivian Andes, pulling double shifts in the oxygen-starved, claustrophobic confines of mining tunnels to document this world in stark black-and-white images. Although the Spanish are long gone, new generations of Indian miners still ply the wormholed mountain and others like it in the Cordillera Real of the Bolivian Andes.

The discovery of silver in Cerro Rico in 1545 brought the town of Potosí into existence; 28 years later, its crooked streets — the better to cut the fierce wind — bore 120,000 residents, comparable to the population of Paris, London or Seville. Silver flowed so copiously from the mountain that European Potosinos became immensely wealthy, immersing themselves in a celebration of excess, reputedly paving a street with silver bars, frequenting gambling houses and bordellos and engaging in bloody duels wearing emerald-studded helmets and wielding Toledo swords.

At first, the neighboring Indians worked in the mines and enjoyed fair wages under the mita, a system of communal work devised by the Inca. Eventually, greed induced the Spanish to turn the mita into a forced labor system under which Indians were torn from their rural communities and compelled to work under inhuman conditions. The miners toiled from dawn to dusk, chewing coca leaves, so as to cheat hunger and survive the lung-bursting work inside the mines. More than a quarter million Indian miners died from mining accidents, lung disease, and mercury poisoning from ore-refining over the course of the Spanish colonial period, adding to the already staggering devastation wrought by a host of European-introduced diseases.

With Potosí’s riches heralded by Cervantes and others, mines opened across the Bolivian Andes, and the silver ingots that crossed the Atlantic in the holds of galleons fueled the flowering of the Spanish Empire. In the meantime, Indian miners fought to stay alive and in doing so, embellished their own culture with distinctive flourishes.

Potosí, once the wealthiest and most famous city in the Americas, has become one of the poorest, the rich veins of silver having long since been depleted, although tin and other minerals remain. Today, driven by poverty to carry on in the footsteps that their forebears have trod for more than five centuries, Indian miners continue to press ever deeper into the heart of the silver mountains.

By John F. Ross

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