Interior Mina

Idea and photos: © Jerónimo Rivera
Research and texts: © Thomas André Pola

  • "Every mita (working day) I am certain that there is no life inside the mine, as there is also no death. In the mine, death is lived and life dies. We are irretrievably another form of existence. Not life, not death".
  • Every day, thousands and thousands of miners descend to work belowground all along the planet. This is the story of a working day inside (cooperative) mines of the Department of Oruro, Bolivia.

  • The Andes opens up in two branches, forming the Bolivian altiplano, an immense golden plain swept by the frozen wind at 4000 meters. Mountains of wrinkled and green skin arise like islands in the middle of this sea of land, with sun-burnt rocky scars. The hills guard in their bosom large part of the raw materials of Bolivia´s economic and social history: silver, tin, lead, zinc, etc. minerals that have been extracted since the times of pre-Columbian civilizations and that marked the destiny of an entire nation. Today, the department of Oruro – where this work was made – remains an important mining area.
  • During the colonization, Spaniards made the Andean peoples into mitayos, peasants subjugated to forced labor in mines. Around these, mining communities were formed that still live on.
  • For many years, most of the country´s mining deposits were administrated and exploited by the state mining company (COMIBOL), but it went bankrupt in the 1980s and remained in charge only of the most productive deposits, abandoning the mines of less potential value and leaving, thus, thousands of miners unemployed.
  • The lack of sources of employment motivated the miners to organize themselves and form cooperatives to recover the abandoned mines. Today, 81% of them work in this type of organization. However, depending on the international price of these minerals, corporative mining workers can be about 80.000, that is to say, approximately one of every hundred Bolivians and their families subsist on that type of work.
  • Only a few can and know how to enter the mine. It is a space of transcendence, that is to say, from the world of the sky to the universe of belowground. Far away from the sun and so close to the shine of minerals, man constructed a world adapted to life belowground. The corridors inside the mine have bridges, chimneys for air, beam floors, places for rest: technical precautions that make work possible.
  • They are organized in teams of 2 to 6 men. Each one works in a specific place of the mine they call “spot”. Thanks to its particular nature and long history, mining has consolidated its own and unique culture; with beliefs, rites and myths that are today put into practice by Bolivian miners, who endow the belowground with its own gods and spirits with whom they coexist daily. The dangerous mining universe is marked by rites and offerings that remind of the coexistence and necessary exchange with pagan lords, whose origins are lost with the first workers of the tunnel.
  • In the corridors of the old woman (as they call the mine), the miners work for their daily sustenance under the mocking view of the owner of the mine, the Uncle: a clay statue with human physiognomy and devil´s horns, which the miners venerate and give offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and cigars every day. This represents a contractual relationship with the gods to receive their protection. In the world belowground, gods decide the future of the miners: popular belief states that the Uncle fertilizes Pachamama (mother earth) to produce minerals.
  • Gods complement each other and there is continuity between the mining cosmology and the beliefs of agriculture: both see the belowground as a savage world, dangerous and full of riches.