Bolivia's Cerro Rico: The Mountain That Eats Men

Cerro Rico, or Rich Mountain, rises like a monument in Potosi, Bolivia. It has produced silver, and hardship, for centuries. Now it may be in danger of collapse.

Cerro Rico, or Rich Mountain, rises like a monument in Potosi, Bolivia. It has produced silver, and hardship, for centuries. Now it may be in danger of collapse. Carlos Villalon for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Villalon for NPR

Near the mountain city of Potosi in the southern highlands of Bolivia, the cone-shaped peak of Cerro Rico stands as a 15,800-foot monument to the tragedies of Spanish conquest. For centuries, Indian slaves mined the mountain's silver in brutal conditions to bankroll the Spanish empire.

Today, the descendants of those slaves run the mines. But hundreds of years of mining have left the mountain porous and unstable, and experts say it is in danger of collapsing.

At a recent meeting of engineers and Quechua Indian co-op owners who run the mines, Nestor Rene Espinoza unveiled a three-year study of the mountain. Espinoza, an engineer, says there are 600 mines, most of them abandoned, and about 60 miles of shafts that have left it hollowed out like a slab of Swiss cheese.

"Total collapse is possible," Espinoza says. "We hope that this does not happen in Cerro Rico."

His proposal, to pump tons of concrete into abandoned shafts, is now being considered. But the fact that some are questioning the very viability of the Cerro Rico is no small thing in Potosi.

Elogio Tola, 45, a miner since he was a boy, takes a break with coca leaves, chewing bagfuls to ward off hunger and exhaustion in the Cerro Rico silver mines in Potosi last month. i i

Elogio Tola, 45, a miner since he was a boy, takes a break with coca leaves, chewing bagfuls to ward off hunger and exhaustion in the Cerro Rico silver mines in Potosi last month. Carlos Villalon for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Villalon for NPR
Elogio Tola, 45, a miner since he was a boy, takes a break with coca leaves, chewing bagfuls to ward off hunger and exhaustion in the Cerro Rico silver mines in Potosi last month.

Elogio Tola, 45, a miner since he was a boy, takes a break with coca leaves, chewing bagfuls to ward off hunger and exhaustion in the Cerro Rico silver mines in Potosi last month.

Carlos Villalon for NPR

The Mountain That Built A Rich City

The mines here helped turn this into an Imperial City, as the Spanish called it, as big and rich as Madrid. Though the wealth has faded since colonial times, there are still opulent churches and old mansions that attest to the city's glory days.

The Spanish called the mountain Cerro Rico, or Rich Mountain, for the silver they extracted from the mountain. Some 3 million Quechua Indians were put to work here over the years. Hundreds of thousands died, casualties of cave-ins, or killed by overwork, hunger and disease.

Today, deep in the bowels of the mountains, little appears to have changed. Up to 16,000 miners toil here much like their ancestors did, using picks, hammers, shovels and brute strength. Men and boys — sons of the miners — haul rocks to the surface on their backs. There are rail cars, but they are the old iron ones introduced to mining in the 19th century. There's no lighting aside from workers' headlamps, and no piped-in oxygen or safety regulations.

Wilber Marino, who is 41, works shirtless, sweat covering his body. Like all the miners here, he calls this place The Mountain That Eats Men.

"There's nothing for us, just for the bosses," Marino says. "We work like mules, like slaves."

The paradox is that it's the miners who are in charge: There are 35 cooperatives, owned and run by Quechua Indians.

Saturnino Soncko, 58, has been inhaling the fine dust at the silver mines of Cerro Rico for years. He is now extremely ill, gasping for breath in the pulmonary wing of a public hospital in Potosi, Bolivia. i i

Saturnino Soncko, 58, has been inhaling the fine dust at the silver mines of Cerro Rico for years. He is now extremely ill, gasping for breath in the pulmonary wing of a public hospital in Potosi, Bolivia. Carlos Villalon for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Villalon for NPR
Saturnino Soncko, 58, has been inhaling the fine dust at the silver mines of Cerro Rico for years. He is now extremely ill, gasping for breath in the pulmonary wing of a public hospital in Potosi, Bolivia.

Saturnino Soncko, 58, has been inhaling the fine dust at the silver mines of Cerro Rico for years. He is now extremely ill, gasping for breath in the pulmonary wing of a public hospital in Potosi, Bolivia.

Carlos Villalon for NPR

But the miners here say it's the managers who take the lion's share of the revenues from the mining of lead, zinc and the silver that's left. The government, dependent on support from mining cooperatives nationwide, has been reluctant to get involved.

Pride, And Suffering

Nonetheless, mining families here remain proud of their role in the mine. They live in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood called Calvary, at the base of the mountain. They frequently put on big parties, complete with brass bands and plenty of food and beer.

The hard truth, though, is that mining inside the Rich Mountain means hardship and hellish conditions. The miners have to lower themselves down rocky, tight holes barely big enough for a grown man. And then they spend hours heaving and hauling, all at an altitude of 14,000 feet. Invariably, they wind up old and broken down before they're 50.

"We can't hack it like when we were young," says miner Elogio Tola, who's 45. "We get tired more easily."

Even if the miners survive cave-ins, Tola says they know death will come from the fine deadly dust they breathe daily.

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