February 24, 2006

Llama sacrifice kicks off Bolivia’s Carnival

By Helen Popper

ORURO, Bolivia (Reuters) - Every day, miners in the
Bolivian city of Oruro emerge from the underground gloom with
dusty, grimy faces. On Friday, they emerged dressed in
ceremonial ponchos, their faces smeared with the blood of
sacrificed llamas.

Simply to say thanks for staying alive for another year,
the Oruro miners who eke out a living from abandoned state
mines cut the hearts from llamas in a ritual offering to Mother
Earth and Tio, who among Aymara Indians is the mythical owner
of the mines.

Their work is dangerous, so the offerings must be great.

"I'm 56 and I'm still alive, which surprises me because so
many of my friends have died," said Isaac Meneses as the miners
gathered at the mouth of the Itos mine near this mining town
some 145 miles south of La Paz,

Huddled around a rusty railway cart laden with sweets,
confetti and eggs, the miners chewed coca leaves and sprinkled
alcohol on the offerings to be taken below in a ritual that
takes place every year on the Friday before Carnival
celebrations in Bolivia.

As the ritual reached its climax in a vast cavern at the
top of the mine shaft, the llamas were brought in. Amid shouts
of "Viva" in Aymara, their throats were slit and hearts cut out
to be offered on silver plates.

"It's important to give thanks to Tio, because our job is
very dangerous, and to Mother Earth, because we are taking
riches from her," said Agustin Choque, president of the
cooperative formed by unemployed miners that started working
Itos about five years ago.

State miner COMIBOL closed down the mine because its
deposits of tin, lead and silver were unprofitable.

Rising prices on world markets have revived the cooperative
mines and the vast majority of Bolivian miners now work in such
cooperatives, despite the risks of working with antiquated

Until recently, superstition prevented women working as
miners, but now wives work alongside their husbands at Itos and
other mines in South America's poorest country.

"We do the same work as the men," said young mother Elena
Poma, wearing the typical Indian dress of bowler hat, wide
skirt and shawl. "The work is very hard and there are many
risks, but there are not many other options here."

The miners offerings must be blessed by an Aymara Indian
witch doctor before they are pushed along the rail tracks into
the darkness of the mine.

"We do this every year because we want to be cared for,"
said Meneses. "This is a sad life because when you go into the
mine you never know if you will come out dead or alive."