Potosì

Eve of destruction

“Everything is colourless in here. The beauty of nature disappears at the entrance of this tunnel. Nobody laughs, nobody smiles. Tìo cannot do much for us, at the end of the day. He stands there, with his huge penis: we light up cigarettes and place them in his mouth made of mud. We do it as carelessly as we light up dynamite sticks. You can buy them in every shop in Potosí. Sometimes, we receive them as a gift from the tourists that venture up here. I wonder if they really realise what’s been happening down here, for centuries”.

Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world. It’s located at 4070 metres above sea level. In Potosí, the human race deserves extinction.

A dramatic pantomime

“There is no air in here. The wind does not enter these tunnels. Temperatures rise and fall depending on the direction in which your silver lode grows. If it travels down towards Pachamama’s belly, it gets scorching hot. If it grows northwards, your bones get increasingly chillier. Today I am kneeling down in one of the galleries that are nearest to the entrance. I am hammering down one of the empty walls while I am waiting for the tourists: I will tell them my usual story about the collection of stones that lay in front of me. I will tell them that I work in this nightmarish tunnel to support my studies at the local tourism school. Some of the visitors will believe me and will buy my stones. Others willy shyly turn away their eyes. They will know this is a dramatic pantomime”.

In Potosí, history repeats itself. This city was founded around the middle of the 16th century and its most famous natural landmark is the “Cerro Rico”, the precious mountain. For centuries, several types of minerals have been extracted from its opulent belly: silver, gold, zinc and many more. “Vale un potosì”, people still say in Spanish, “it is worth a potosí”, when something is valuable.

The Spanish domination lasted for more than 3 centuries in this part of the world: it was carried forward “with the holy cross on the chest and the sword hidden behind the back”. The conquistadores made first the local population and then the slaves abducted from Africa enter the Earth’s depths and extract the inestimable stones.

It was calculated that at least 8 million people have died in Potosì tunnels since 1525.

Pachamama, I will see you soon again

“My doctor speaks fast. He must have disclosed this very same diagnosis thousands of times before. I have heard most of the terms he is using: silicosis, lung cancer. I keep on chewing my coca leaves. Pachamama, I will see you soon again”.

In Potosí, people have been dying at a young age for centuries.

This has been due to brutal and inhumane work conditions and to an almost total absence of basic safety measures. 40 years of age: that’s how long miners live around here on an average. Silicosis, lung cancer, emphysema. In the past, then, they would also succumb under collapsing tunnels and because of mercury poisoning toxic vapours and skin contact.

“We have learnt nothing”, I cannot help but thinking while I am getting out of one of these tunnels, in December 2016.

8 million people pierced this holy ground that now lies almost dry and ravished.

We deserve extinction.

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