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Silver discovery under poor town changes everything

All his adult life, geologist Larry Buchanan of Ashland has loved to be out in the wilds looking for large mineral deposits, especially silver.

In 1995, Buchanan, a former professor with the Colorado School of Mines, was prospecting in the treeless barrens of Bolivia at 14,000 feet when he spotted the telltale flaky white mineral that looked like silver sulfide.

An assay showed it was that mineral, and the incredibly rich deposit turned out to be a mile wide and 1,000 feet deep. Only one problem: The primitive little village of San Cristobal, with 440 Quechua Indians, sat “smack dab” on top of it. For a big open-pit mine to happen, the town would have to be moved.

The mine, destined to become the second-richest silver mine in the world (also the second-largest zinc mine), triggered a huge brouhaha as millions in investor cash flowed in — and many in humanitarian organizations rushed to support the indigenous folk, making sure they weren’t just kicked out, as routinely happens in such cases, said Buchanan.

Ironically, tribal members said they had received a prophesy in 1540 that El Tio, the Lord of the Underworld, would grant immense silver wealth in the year 2000 to those who feared and believed in him — and their city would shine with silver. But, he said, it would be followed by death and destruction because people would be so rich they would forget El Tio and even stop planting their potatoes. That foreboding part of the prophecy has not happened yet.

With promised wealth on the horizon, the town folk were 85% in favor of moving, but by tradition any vote had to be unanimous.

Buchanan notes the natives were “flat tired of being poor and said, ‘We want to join the 21st century.’” They were sick of no electricity, one water faucet shared by everyone, one teacher for the whole county and a 40% death rate among children, mainly from breathing the dust of llama droppings, which filled the air. Above all, he notes, the prophecy of riches seemed poised to come true, and they didn’t want to anger the “miner’s devil,” El Tio, by refusing his gift. So the vote was soon unanimous.

In their 2009 book, “The Gift of El Tio,” Buchanan and his wife, Karen Gans, whom he calls “my conscience,” spell out how all parties dedicated themselves to a win-win solution, culturally and environmentally.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund backed it, as did Buchanan’s employer, Apex Silver Mines, with investments topping $68 million before century’s end and before any silver was extracted, he says.

The World Wildlife Fund safeguarded environmental impacts and, based on its large Catholic church, begun in 1618, UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site — and the church was moved 8 miles, along with the rest of the town, and rebuilt with water, electricity and, amazingly, six layers of religious murals moved from the old church walls to the new.

The town move, which included moving a graveyard with more than 600 bodies, cost $6 million.

“They are an animistic people, which means that everything is alive and has soul — and their ancestors are in the rocks and the rocks have soul,” says Buchanan. “Not only do they worship El Tio, but also Pachamama, the goddess of everything above the ground, and also the Catholic gods. They worship and fear El Tio, who loves to smoke and drink and always has a big erection — and if you disregard him, he can kill and eat you.”

El Tio is the god of mines, but this mine didn’t have an icon of him, so Gans and Buchanan, who had found a genuine reverence for him, built one, stole into the mine and installed him, complete with red horns and colorful streamers and a cape of cocoa leaves.

Gans, an educator-counselor in the U.S. for 35 years, said Ashland’s progressive population is “quick to judge any international company and believe they are raping the wealth” of third-world peoples. However IMF “is the conscience of the project” and requires they follow environmental, safety and cultural standards — and “they invested $25 million in studying and preserving the society, archaeology and agriculture of it.”

The town prospered beyond imagining and drew 7,000 Bolivian immigrants to share in the opportunities — electricity, plumbing, big hospital, free medical care, hotels, restaurants, huge gym, soccer stadium, three universities. Malnutrition disappeared and the child death rate dropped from 40 to 10 percent. Women were given preferential hiring because, in addition to being dependable workers, they saved more money, in contrast to men, who liked to visit the taverns, Buchanan notes.

A good wage in earlier times was $1,000 a year. It soared to $1,000 a month, sometimes twice that. From a one-room schoolhouse for scores of villages, they went to three high schools, and about a dozen people each year go on to free-ride scholarships at universities around the world, Buchanan says.

One teen girl wanted more than anything to be a mechanic and own a 200-ton, $1 million truck, like the ones used to haul ore. Now she owns and drives one and keeps it in repair.

With a landslide of modern luxuries came problems, such as alcohol, drunk driving and overwork. Miners put in 12 hours a day, seven days a week for several weeks, then get a week off.

Buchanan’s specialty is called “economic geology,” and he says he has been more concerned with creating jobs and opportunities, while Gans, his wife of 28 years, trained as an early childhood development educator, balanced him, kept a sharp eye on social justice and taught English in the village.

The town was entirely rebuilt and inhabitants chose lots of shiny corrugated steel for roofing and walls because it would fulfill the prophecy of El Tio, that when his promised riches arrived, the homes would shine like silver.

The mine produces 35 million ounces of silver a year, worth $525 million. The town gets $12 million to $20 million a year. The Bolivian government and mine owner Sumitomo, in Japan, get $260 million and $390 million a year, respectively.

It’s been the adventure of a lifetime in which, Buchanan notes, “I’ve had a lot of luck. There are 25,000 geologists out looking for this, and they’re smart people. I’ve seen their traces here — but I’m the one who found it while they were out drinking beer and chasing women.

“I’m very proud of what we did, and I love the people. They’re honest and hard working,” says Buchanan. “We came and went over a 10-year period and really got to know them. They wanted me to be mayor, but I couldn’t because I’m not Bolivian.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Photo by John Darling Larry Buchanan and Karen Gans hold their book "The Gift of El Tio."