Work and rites down the mines of Potosi, Bolivia

04/30/04

Work is a universal characteristic of human societies, but its meaning can differ according to their structure and organization. An IRD anthropologist took this observation as starting point to examine the representations of mining work in the Andes, analysing links between the socio-economic parameters of this sector and miners' systems of symbolism and imagination.

Mining work operates in an industrial urbanized context. In spite of this, the Quechuaphone miners of Potosi in Bolivia, believe it represents more than just conquering underground wealth by human strength and skill. It is for them a ritualized activity cloaked with connotations of pilgrimage and journeys of initiation, where Christianity mixes with ancient shamanist practices. As he works, the miner, possessed by the diabolic divinity inherent in the mineral veins, becomes a devil and enters into a kind of sexual union with the mine to produce the ore. These representations relate to the political, social and economic reality. They justify the women's exclusion from the mines and enable the miners to give sense to changes associated with globalization: the privatization of the mines and the development of an individualist logic of social advancement at the expense of class mobilization.

Although work is a universal feature of human societies, its meaning varies according to their structure and organization. An IRD anthropologist took this observation as starting point and compiled in a work entitled "The ministers of the devil – work and its representations in the mines of Potosi, Bolivia", her analyses of representations of mining work in the Andes. In this, she makes links between the socio-economic parameters associated with mining and miners' systems of symbolism and imagination.

Potosi, a mountain at the heart of the Bolivian cordillera of the Andes, harbours the world's greatest silver reserves. Ore has been extracted commercially since the XVIth century and Spanish colonization. Today, 5 000 workers live from the extraction of its mineral. Most are Quechuaphone people, former peasant farmers driven from the rural areas by poverty. Since the State mines closed in 1985, they have been organized into self-managed cooperatives.

The practices and symbolic representations of the agricultural world and work have been remodelled by the industrial urbanized mining environment. But they still give structure to the mineral extraction organization and its underlying concepts. The study aimed to gain an appreciation of these. To do this it traced the miners' history, origin and organization as far as the effects on bodies and minds of daily frequentation of the underground world. Religious imagination is a key indicator for understanding how local working practices link with global socio-economic constraints and particularly with globalization.

Work down the mine, in the minds of the Potosi miners, is not just a conquest of underground riches by human strength and technical skill. It is a ritualized activity which has connotations with pilgrimage and journeys of initiation, where Christianity mixes with ancient shamanist practices. It implies a descent into an underground world governed by divinities – devils, ancestors, wild forces – who have to be called upon ritually to ensure the fertility of the mountain and access to the veins of ore.

Relations are forged between men and divinities that are conceived in terms of links with production. Each entity of the subterranean world plays a specific role in the mine's production that men must encourage by means of offerings and support by his work. Mother Earth gives fertility to the mineral deposits, the mining devil organizes their exploitation by men. In parallel, the ritual role of each worker (members of the cooperative, salaried peasant workers, pieceworkers, managers) depends on his position in the structure of working relations. Ties of dependence and domination between the workers thus find their legitimacy in religious constructs.

The symbolic representations become involved, in a context where the mining work has brought about a socialization of the subterranean world, through the miner's transformation into a devil. This enables him to negotiate with the wild forces that prevail underground and to enter into a sexual union with the mountain in order to produce the mineral. This demonic possession establishes the miners as a social class apart, distinct from other urban workers and the peasant farmers. It is also a means of justifying male domination and the exclusion of women who are relegated to poorly-paid tasks at the surface (sorting and clearing the ore and so on).

If the mining devil is ever present, representation of this entity has evolved along with the society. Before the 1980s, an era of powerful unions, he was the symbolic figure of the miners' political revolt. Today, an individualist logic of social advancement mobility has replaced class mobilization and the relationship with the devil has become re-centred on individual pacts: in exchange for his soul and human sacrifice, the divinity will give the worker the most productive veins. The anthropologist gives prominence to the role of the recent mining crisis and the application of free-market oriented directives of the IMF in the current proliferation of such pacts. Unequal redistribution of the former State-owned mining concerns and the freeing-up of the national market for ore were accompanied by increasing inequalities between miners who attribute them to pacts with the devil. This belief is a way of taking away the legitimacy of the richest miners' domination over their employees. It goes even further, in that it is the free-market reforms as a whole which are being demonized.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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-- Elizabeth Kubler-Ross