Why did you decide to write The Mountain that Eats Men?
In 2009, I visited Bolivia to write a piece about child labour in the mining industry. As journalists we tend to fall into the trap of only seeing whatever it is we have gone to look for. So I spent several weeks finding out more about the terrible working conditions of the miners of Potosí and the issue of child labour, and that was what I wrote about. But I couldn’t help feeling that the situation in Cerro Rico was far more complex, that it went far deeper than these generalities. Over the next few years I decided to go back and spend more time with those families: in tunnels beneath the ground, in huts on the mountainside, as they went about their daily lives. And that was when I discovered stories that weren’t being told – or at least not in newspapers or books or films, not even in the local press.
I met a young girl who worked in the mines in conditions that were very close to slavery. She was amazingly courageous and incredibly clear-headed, and I realized that her life offered a way to tell a story that was richer and more complex than the usual approach to such subjects. In addition to retelling the history of mining in Bolivia, the looting of the country by colonialists and capitalists, the failed revolutions, the historical struggles and contemporary problems, I thought I could shine a light on a sinister and less well-known aspect of mining: the everyday violence that is the result of a particular way of organizing affairs and of a particular vision of life.
Why should a global audience be interested in Bolivia’s mining communities?
Because the extreme exploitation that characterizes the mining industry in Bolivia is part of a much wider, global phenomenon: the problem of surplus workers. In Bolivia, a single mining operation, run by a multinational company using modern technology and employing only 1,000 workers, produces half the country’s total output. At the same time, more than 100,000 cooperative miners, using the most basic techniques in extremely dangerous conditions, generate a mere 3 per cent of that output. Those 100,000 miners could disappear, and nobody would notice. In fact, they die like flies and nobody notices.
There is no plan to reorganize society to integrate this huge mass of people who no longer offer value for the economic system. And this abandonment leads to another phenomenon: the oppression of those at the very bottom of the ladder by those who are one step above them. So cooperative miners exploit rural migrants, who work for the cooperatives without any contracts or rights. Every aspect of people’s lives is degraded. Violence is endemic.
Can you tell us a little more about these mining cooperatives?
The whole phenomenon is really interesting. From the 1952 revolution until 1985, Bolivian mining was controlled by the state. The sector lost more and more money until it finally went bankrupt. In 1986, it was privatized and the effects were devastating. The vast majority of miners had to form cooperatives – in reality, small groups of workers, operating without resources, without technology, without safety and without rights. The workers had no protection. And many cooperatives soon abandoned their principles: some of their members became managers who did underthe- counter deals with the large companies.
The cooperatives employed rural migrants as day labourers – lacking contracts, insurance or safeguards of any kind – and even used child labour. In short, the cooperatives became little more than front companies. News about miners protesting in Bolivia, such as the unrest that ended with a vice-minister being lynched in 2016, is often presented as workers fighting for their rights. The reality is rather different, with the cooperatives mobilizing against government measures designed to improve the conditions of these casual migrant labourers: granting them the right to unionize, to receive medical insurance, to work in safe conditions and so on. The cooperative is the formula that is used to deprive thousands of workers of their rights.
Tell us about something unexpected you uncovered in the process of writing The Mountain that Eats Men.
The brutal daily violence in the communities around Potosí: an environment that is outside the law and whose inhabitants are exposed to constant danger. Sexual violence against women and children is common and goes unpunished. The heroic figure of the miner, so central to Bolivian culture, has a sinister side. He is a brave, powerful, fatalistic male who risks his life every day in the most dangerous mines in the world, and many of the miners believe that gives them the right to do whatever they want.
I decided I had to address this issue, to address the victims who are also executioners: the victims of an economic exploitation that turns them into executioners within their own families; the person who occupies the penultimate rung of the ladder, crushing the people below them – usually women and children.