Inside The Silver Mountain

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If you’ve checked into my Facebook page or Twitter lately you will have seen that I had an article, ‘Inside the Silver Mountain’ in the last edition of The Big Issue, a fortnightly, independent magazine that is sold on the streets by homeless, marginalised and disadvantaged people. It’s a global enterprise with magazines in many different countries. In Australia, vendors buy copies of the magazine for $3 and sell them for $6, earning the difference. The magazine provides jobs for the homeless and disadvantaged. Since it’s inception in Australia in 1996 The Big Issue has sold 7.5 million copies and put over $15 million into the pockets of Australia’s homeless.

‘Inside The Silver Mountain’ is the most personal article I’ve ever had published. In it I put Latin America’s tragic colonial history into context by contemplating the threads of life and death in my own family. I’m really happy to have been able to share this story in a publication of such positive enterprise – and only one page away from a photo series by acclaimed Magnum photographer Martin Parr no less! Now that the edition my article is in has almost finished its’ run I’m able to post the piece in full below (or you can also download the PDF).

Till next time.

Cam.

INSIDE THE SILVER MOUNTAIN

Cam Cope returns to South America to explore a historic mine that had captured his imagination years before, but finds himself also contemplating the threads of his own family’s history.

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Sweating, covered in dust and dragging myself down a narrow tunnel, I follow my guide, Ricardo, to the fourth level of the mine complex. The temperature is over 40 degrees Celsius, the walls drip water past broken roof beams, and an acrid smell from exploded dynamite charges and raw minerals permeates the air. We sit down and switch off the torches on our heads. It’s totally dark, and totally silent.

We are sitting in a small passage of an estimated 500km of unmapped mining tunnels that honeycomb Cerro Rico, a 4824m mountain that towers above the Bolivian high plain near Potosí, in southern Bolivia. I have been fascinated with this mountain ever since my university days when I was on exchange in Chile, studying Latin American history.

Slowly working through the history books that helped my Spanish mature, I was awe-struck by the unprecedented scale of events that took place in the Potosí region, and the terrible human cost it had on an entire continent. I felt a strong urge to visit, to try to fathom the impossible statistics and tragic history that had felt so uncomfortably abstract in the classroom. I could not possibly have known that coming here would help me contemplate the threads of life and death in my own family.

In the summer of 2006–07 I was planning a backpacking odyssey around South America after finishing a semester abroad at a university in Santiago, Chile. But just as my exams loomed, I received news that my father, Andrew Cope, had been killed in a car accident in country Victoria. I was devastated. Shelving all travel plans, I returned home to grieve with my family.

Since then I’d always felt I needed to return to South America and complete my adventure. It’s now five years later and I’m back. In a way, it feels like I’m reconnecting with a younger version of myself. I’m re-impassioned by the interests I held as a younger man. I’ve recuperated my Spanish and am beginning to delve once more into Latin America’s colonial history.

Tearing into the same darkness in which I now sit with Ricardo, the Spanish started mining this metal mountain in 1546, shortly after dispossessing the Incas of their empire. Since then, 41,000 metric tonnes of pure silver have been hauled out, and an estimated eight million indigenous slaves died here to make it happen. I can’t help thinking of Dad as I go over these numbers with Ricardo, but amplifying a tragedy by a factor of eight million defies imagination.

When I first arrived in Potosí it was Semana Santa (around Easter), and most miners were at home with their families. I struck up conversation with a Chilean in my hostel, Vicente, and invited him to hike with me as high as we could get on the mountain. Filling our water bottles with coca leaf tea we called a taxi for the highest point in town. The elegant stone architecture of the city centre quickly gave way to poor neighbourhoods haphazardly sprawling uphill towards the mining cooperative. There we stepped out of the taxi to a quiet scene: hand-painted on the front wall of the co-op was a sign selling helmets, gloves, boots, facemasks and head-torches. A miner stood by the gate entrance chewing coca leaves and watching his son play with a tyre in the dust.

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It’s possible that the boy’s family lines stretch back 500 years to the Incan mita, a tax-like obligatory labour service exploited by the Spanish to acquire slaves to feed into the mountain. The life expectancy of a slave, once put to work, was sometimes as low as six months. The slaves were of myriad indigenous backgrounds, captured all over South America and brought to Potosí by traders who sold them for profit. Many died on the way and when those that made it arrived, they faced poor sanitary conditions, a lack of nutritious food, notoriously unstable mine shafts and direct exposure to lead, arsenic, cyanide and the mercury used to treat silver ore. So terrible were the conditions that the indigenous miners came to name the mountain ‘la boca del infierno’ – the mouth of hell.

Picking our way above the mining co-op, Vicente and I soon realised there was no single trail that led to the summit. Each track had been built over others in all manner of directions. Every time we thought we’d found a good path up it would abruptly end a few hundred metres later at a yawning excavation, or become covered by a pile of loose rock. Occasionally a waft of sulphurous fumes would wash over us, but we could never determine their origin. We found homes perched by the entrances to private family tunnels. There was always at least one abuelita (grandma) keeping an eye out and a couple of menacing dogs to stop strangers from entering these mines uninvited.

Due to a geological quirk, the richest silver deposits were originally found in the summit. As the centuries wore on, miners were forced to descend deeper and deeper into the mountain for increasingly scarce scraps. In the early 20th century, mining operations were centrally planned but by the 1950s operations had been abandoned. Since then, any mining has been haphazard. I couldn’t escape the impression that today’s miners are picking the corpse of Cerro Rico.

We arrived at the head of the monster after clambering to the top of its body. The gaping mouth of the mountain was a mess of crumbling earth pillars and an open sinkhole feebly cordoned off with a faded red-and-white tape, a warning to all not to approach.

Taking in the panorama, I tried to picture the scene as it would have been in the 1600s. The muffled clinks of pickaxes echoing along the tunnels. The groaning of pulleys hauling ore down the mountain. The sloshing sound as slaves walked in liquid mercury. Protesting mule trains loading up with silver. The dusty arrival from beyond the hills of another exhausted slave train. A lonely shovel digging an unmarked grave…

My father does not have a grave. Mum felt that by being burned in the car, after dying instantly in the accident, Dad had sent us a message about his burial wishes. We cremated him along with his favourite jumper. Mum left it folded neatly on his coffin for the funeral company to put inside. We spread his ashes at Walkerville South, in South Gippsland, Victoria, where he had worked as a teacher at my age and met my mum. He took us there every summer when we were kids, just as his father had done with him, and spent decades volunteering at the local surf club. It was where he would later die on the road.

On our way down the mountain I noticed a statue atop a large cathedral. His arms outstretched – just like those of Rio de Janeiro’s redeemer – this stone Christ peered down upon the 170,000 modern-day inhabitants of Potosí. He keeps his back to the mountain, perhaps because he knows the Cerro is still firmly in his old adversary’s territory.

Today, around 15,000 miners, over a thousand of whom are children aged between eight and 12, still work in the mines. It is a rare miner who lives much beyond 40 before dying from a type of pneumonia caused by inhaling toxic dust for decades. Each of the miners pays homage to a kind of patron demon of the mountain, Tio, by giving him small offerings as they enter. They hope their gifts of food, flowers and coca leaves will appease Tio’s thirst for the souls of men and provide a good yield of ore.

Back in the darkness of level four, Ricardo rouses me from my contemplation of the climb the previous day. He explains that the word ‘Tio’, despite meaning ‘uncle’ in Spanish, is actually derived from the Spanish word ‘Dios’ (meaning God). For the local Andean peoples, pronouncing the ‘d’ in ‘Dios’ was difficult; instead, they used a ‘t’ sound. Ricardo pierces the darkness with his head-torch and asks, “Do you think it is just a coincidence that the Spanish word for God also became the slave’s word for the demon in control of the mountain?”

I follow Ricardo deeper into darkness, where miners slosh along canal-like tunnels and push loaded carts each carrying more than a tonne of ore. Some miners work in teams for the co-op, others alone or in father-son duos and trios. Occasionally we hear – and feel – a muffled boom of an explosion before fine dust fills the air. Few miners wear face-masks. Despite knowing that the dust represents a slow butcertain death sentence, the humidity and high altitude make it difficult to breathe through them when exerting the physical effort required to haul ore. I can’t help pulling the mask from my own face several times in an attempt to get more air.

As they pass us, the miners smile and offer their pickaxes in jest. They appreciate our gifts of juice, coca leaves, alcohol and dynamite. The men work 12-hour days with no food, chewing only tobacco and coca leaves to stave off hunger and fatigue. After just two hours below ground I am ready to escape the monster, breathe real air and bask in some sunshine.

Outside, I see a group of boys playing amid mine debris. Within a few years they will most likely swap their toys for dynamite and road dust for silica. It is predicted that the mine will become exhausted within the next 20 to 40 years, making this generation the last that will enter the mouth of hell.

Exploring the narrative of people’s lives over generations makes history come alive. It gives meaning to abstract dates, names and statistics, and places facts in context. Dad’s great grandfather was the operator of the historic lime kiln at Walkerville South. His grave, and that of his wife, are nowpart of a historic cemetery there. After spreading Dad’s ashes, we noticed that Dad’s great grandmother had died on exactly the same day, 16 November, 107 years earlier.

I realise that I have arrived in Potosí to witness the beginning of the end. After 500 years of operation, the mine is entering its final chapter. What the locals will do when the ore runs out is a subject of growing debate. For now, little alternative work is available, and the nearby cities of Cochabamba and La Paz are already experiencing conflict over living space and dwindling water supplies.

Near the mine, watching dusty faces hurry back into the darkness, it occurs to me there is a continuity to it all. For those slaving away in this mountain’s depths, thinking about the future has never been a luxury they could afford.

Like the rest of us, all they have for direction are threads of the past. We know that the narrative will continue, but what the future holds will remain in the hands of Tio.

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3 thoughts on “Inside The Silver Mountain

  1. Thank you for sharing that Cam. So open and honest . I hope the tour of South America was somewhat of a healing process. It’s great that you got to live out that dream – no matter how long it takes!

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