Cerro Rico, Potosí, Bolivia

At 4090m Potosí is the world’s highest city and a Unesco World Heritage site since 1987.  Its impressive colonial architecture is set against the backdrop of the Cerro Rico, or rich mountain.  Potosí was founded in 1545 following the discovery of ore deposits in the mountain.  From 1556 to 1783 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico by  millions of indigenous and slave laborers who were forced to work in the mines.  By the end of the 18th century the city had grown into the largest and wealthiest city in Latin America.  After 1800 the silver mines were depleted leading to a slow economic decline. 

Today Potosí is severely polluted and thousands of men and boys continue to work in the mines to extract minerals.  Working practices are medieval, safety provisions nearly nonexistent and the mines lack proper ventilation.  Work is done by hand with basic tools such as pickaxes and shovels.  Temperatures in the mines range from below freezing to more than 100 degrees F.  Silica dust in the air causes silicosis pneumonia, and most mineros die within 10-20 years after starting work in the mines.  The Cerro Rico has been mined continuously for 400 years.  With hundreds of tunnels running through it experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.

The miners who enter the mountain each day, some as young as 10 years of age, work the mine as a cooperative venture, with each miner selling his ore to a smelter through the cooperative.  The mines are dangerous and nightmarish places with unexpected explosions, falling rocks and runaway trolleys all resulting in frequent injuries and deaths.  Potosí’s ever expanding cemetery is a testament to this fact.  To protect themselves from ‘The Mountain That Eats Men’ the miners worship their devil, Tio, a wooden figure housed deep inside the mine.  They visit him regularly with offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes in an attempt to ensure their own safety. 

Tours of the working mines are popular among foreign visitors to Potosí.  Tours begin at the miners’ street market buying gifts for the miners, continue through the mines scrambling and crawling in low, narrow and dirty mine shafts, and end with tour participants holding lit sticks of dynamite.  Tour companies advertise the tours as, “an opportunity to crawl around inside the terrifying but awe-inspiring labyrinth in which over 200 miners are working.” Participants and tour operators alike will swear that the tours are not exploitative.  Unfortunately, the money generated by running the tours, around $10 per participant and more than many miners make from an entire day’s work, only benefits the tour companies.  

As for us, we opted not to take a tour of the mines, though we talked to several people who had and they all had the same response, “Eye opening, terrifying and unforgettable, but never again.”  Instead, we attended a screening of the documentary film The Devil’s Miner.  Produced in 2005 the film accurately depicts life in the mines and tells the heartbreaking story of a 14 year old miner.  It’s a must see for anyone interested in learning more about the horrific conditions of the mines, the plight of the workers, their fascinating traditions and beliefs, and the extreme poverty and desperation that plagues Bolivia’s indigenous majority.


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