Cerro Rico is the silver rich (actually not so silver rich anymore…. but it was the world’s largest deposit of silver) mountain that lies behind Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world sitting at 4090 meters above sea level.
Silver was first discovered at Cerro Rico by a local herder who lost a llama on the mountain. The nights are VERY cold here and the legend goes that he started a fire on hill and liquid silver ran from the fire……the mountain itself was beleved to have veins of silver.
The history of the mines from the 16th century till today is littered with the bones of those whom the mountain has swallowed. The first mines opened in the late 1500 and the Spanish colonialists were the first to exploit this natural resource. Initially locals, Indeans and African slaves were used to mine the silver. The conditions were very rough with the slaves working 20 hour shifts and only having four hours off to sleep. They were also kept in the mine for up to six months at a time…. if they survived. The legend goes that enough silver was mined to build a bridge from Potosi to Spain and that enough lives were lost to build another bridge to match it from human bones. Makes me thik twice when I look at my silver jewelry.
Today there are over 400 mines with 150 being actively mined and over 15 000 miners working in the mine. The life expectancy of the average miner is only 45 to 55 years due to silicosis and asbestosis. They usually have an unpleasant death due to the lack of medical services and know that their time is up when they start coughing blood. The miners work for themselves and there are no safety guidelines in the mines. There is also no limitation on the amount of time that they are allowed to work. Children as young as 13 years old are working in the mines to support their families. There are no females working in the mine as it is believed that they will bring bad luck and are not strong enough. The only females working near the mine work outside the mine sorting the rock. These are usually widows of miners that have died in the mine.
The mountain of Cerro Rica is actually getting smaller every year to the persistent mining. The government of Bolivia has tried to close the mine due to the terrible conditions but they were unable to as what would they do with the 15 000 miners and the co-ops where they extract the silver? There is no other industry here so it would leave the people destitute.
In the mines themselves the conditions are appalling. I went on a tour of the mine and was only able to do the first section (about an hour) due to my asthma flaring up. The air is so full of dust, there is no ventilation and the fumes from the dynamite come in waves. On the lower levels of the mine the temperature goes up to 40 degrees Celsius. Most work 8 hour shifts and chew large balls of coco leaves to help alleviate the altitude sickness, headaches and hunger. We were told after our tour that 3 days earlier miners had died in a collapse. This happens often as there are no safety regulations in the mine.
Before entering the mine we were taken to a store to buy presents for the miners. It is quite scary as there is no restriction on the sale of alcohol or dynamite. Even young children can buy it. We bought drinks for the miners as many do not even take water with them into the mines.
Outside the mine the miners are Catholic. Inside the mine they worship mother earth and El Tio. El Tio is the male equivalent of mother earth and all the mines have statues of him. The miners leave him offerings and if he is happy they believe that they will have more mineral wealth. Offerings include alcohol, cigarettes, llama fetuses and even human fetuses. If miners die in the mines it is believed that that Gods are satisfied with the sacrifice and that they will be rewarded by increased mineral wealth for the next month or two.
It is not known for how much longer the miners will be able to mine here. To me it felt as if we were in a time bomb that could collapse at any stage.