When people hear about out memoir, The Gift of El Tio, they usually ask the same question: “How did you discover the nearly $70 billion in silver?”
The quick answer is, “It was easy, perhaps too easy.” But it was much more complex than that.
On a crystalline cold day in January of 1995, I was prospecting with two other company geologists, Jon Gelvin and Carlos Murillo. We hiked over the desert ridges of the San Cristobal Range, down near the triple-point where Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia meet, a hard four hours from the nearest bar, bed, or restaurant. Shadows stretched across the canyon walls while we chipped about 100 samples from cliff faces and rock exposures.
The silver deposit lay on the surface, mineralized ledges cropped out everywhere around and below a little indigenous village of rock, adobe and grass thatch, called San Cristobal. The cobblestone streets were paved with silver-bearing rock. The rock walls of the houses literally were laced with silver veins. You couldn’t take a step without touching silver. But somehow it had been overlooked by everyone. The four hours or so we spent sampling were enough for us to realize we were standing atop what would turn out to be the largest silver discovery of the century. It was that easy.
A lousy four hours and we had recognized what centuries of explorers had failed to see. How was that possible? We weren’t any smarter than those others who had searched these hills; we certainly didn’t work any harder. Most people figure we were just lucky, but I think it was more than that. We had a Quechua god on our side.
The Quechua culture of southwestern Bolivia is one of multiple gods and spirits, one with a profound respect for the earth in general and curiously, for rocks in particular. They believe rocks are their direct ancestors, living souls that speak, think, feel emotions, and have distinct personalities. Most are benign, never failing to offer good advice when consulted; others come alive at night to cause grievous harm. Every mountain is a mallku, a wise god; every cliff, a demon or spirit; every rock, an ancestor. Most familiar to the outside world is the Pachamama, their goddess of the earth, but there is another we came to know, a particularly cruel and peevish one named El Tio, who lives in the black interior of mountains, guarding his precious veins of gold and silver.
It is natural that I would appreciate such a culture. I am an exploration geologist. My job is to search the remotest parts of the world for certain rocks, the right types of rocks, those displaying mineralogical clues that El Tio’s precious metals may be present. My team found plenty of those right types, directly beneath the little Quechua village, three miles high in the Bolivian Altiplano. We discovered nearly a half billion tonnes of those silver-plated ancestors of the Quechua.
After a year of work, the engineers calculated it contained nearly a billion ounces of silver, enough ore to last seventeen years of intensive mining. The computer models proved it feasible: the profits would be more than enormous and the mine would become a money-machine. It was a company maker, a world-class discovery, a perfect setup. Except for that poverty-stricken little village right on top of it. If we wanted to make a mine, San Cristobal had to go.
I spent many a cold night on the couch as my wife, Karen, and I argued about the injustice soon to be perpetrated by the company (her words), or the opportunities we were offering the people (my words). Neither of us would budge from our positions; we just knew the other was wrong. It was Karen who decided how to resolve the impasse: she and I had to move to San Cristobal, live there awhile among the people, get to know them, and document what the company was doing to them (her words), or what the company was doing for them (my words).
I thought she was nuts. But I love her so we did it, and I’ve never regretted it.
Thus developed the structure of our memoir, The Gift of El TIo: we took turns writing the chapters, allowing each of us the freedom to describe events as we saw them without filtering our words and thoughts through each other.
Our two voices tell the story of the village, of the changes it suffered as the mine developed, of its customs, its gods, spirits, and demons, and the rugged, enterprising people we came to love. We also tell of the unanticipated and life-changes Karen and I experienced, how so many of our deep-seated opinions about justice and fairness, right and wrong, good and bad were proven to be incredibly naive, mere products of our cultural myopia.
And, yes, the details of how I found the silver are in the memoir, but more importantly, after Karen forced me to live in that little town, I came to learn life holds so much more of value than just a few billion dollars worth of silver.