Cerro Rico, Potosí, Bolivia

Cerro Rico ("Rich Mountain") has formed the basis of Potosí's economy for centuries. In turn a source of silver, tin, lead and zinc; historically a vital source of finance for the Spanish empire with a population larger than London or Paris, later dwindling to less than 10,000; once a source of fabulous private fortunes for some of the world's richest capitalists, before being nationalised until the government decided in the 1980s that the mines could not be operated profitably and the entire industry was turned over to small-scale worker cooperatives (who, to this day, are taxed on what they extract). 120 mines still operate on this basis. Miners' lives are physically demanding and brief: amidst arsenic gas, asbestos, acetylene vapours and various other toxic gases, silica dust, which causes silicosis, is by far the most dangerous, and more or less inevitable after a decade of work. An astounding 8 million people are estimated to have died in or as a result of the mines during Spanish rule.

On Fridays, the miners traditionally get drunk whilst working — this is at once a means of appeasing Supay, the god whose minerals they are extracting, and a rational response to a fairly brutal lifestyle — on purified alcohol, neat or mixed with appropriately noxious sugar-based soft drinks. The pictured bottle of potable alcohol, around 54 per cent by volume, cost 6 Bolivianos (just over 50p). In contrast, a stick of dynamite, including ammonium nitrate (an oxidising agent) and fuse costs 23 Bolivianos (around £2).

I found it an interesting comparison with the world our grandparents lived in: "The time to go [into the mine] is when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are if there — heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space."

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