Latin America

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now to an industrial scene in Bolivia deep inside a mountain. The mountain is tall, cone shaped, nearly 16,000 feet high. For centuries there, slaves mined silver. And now their ancestors run the mines. Conditions are medieval and experts who've studied the mountain say it's in danger of collapsing.

NPR's Juan Forero sent this story from Potosi.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: The mountain looming over this bleak, cold city is a national symbol, a place where the Spanish conquerors put to work three million Quechua Indians. They called it the Cerro Rico or Rich Mountain, and the silver they extracted helped to bankroll the Spanish Empire. It came with a heavy cost. Hundreds of thousands of miners were killed, casualties of cave-ins or overwork, hunger and disease.

But on a recent day, deep in the bowels of the mountain, little appears to have changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELS)

FORERO: Up to 16,000 miners toil here much like their ancestors did, using picks, hammers, shovels and brute strength.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAIL CARS)

FORERO: There are rail cars but they're the old iron ones introduced to mining in the 19th century. Men and many boys, the sons of miners, haul rocks to the surface on their backs. There's no lighting, aside from headlamps, no piped-in oxygen, no safety regulations.

Wilber Marino, who's 41, works shirtless, sweat covering his body.

WILBER MARINO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He says he's under no illusions. He, like all the miners here, refer to this place as The Mountain That Eats Men.

MARINO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: There's nothing for us, just for the bosses, Marino says, we work like mules, likes slaves.

The paradox is that it's the miners who are in charge. There are 35 cooperatives, owned and run by Quechua Indians. 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. And the government, dependent on support from mining cooperatives nationwide, has been reluctant to get involved.

These days, though, the big issue here is whether the mountain even has much of a future.

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

NESTOR RENE ESPINOZA: Total collapse is possible. We hope that this not happens in Cerro Rico.

FORERO: His proposal, to pump tons of concrete into abandoned shafts, is now being considered. The fact that some are questioning the very viability of the Rich Mountain is no small thing in Potosi. The mines here helped turn this into an Imperial City, as the Spanish called it, as big and rich as Madrid. And though its wealth has faded since Colonial times, there are still opulent churches and old mansions that attest to its glory days.

Mining families here remain proud of their role in the mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORERO: 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. If they survive cave-ins, miners like Elogio Tola say they know sure death will come from the fine deadly dust they breathe daily.

ELOGIO TOLA: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

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

He then says he has to get back to work, hammering away for a bit of silver.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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