Ritterbach / Corbis
Ritterbach / Corbis

Bolivia: Struggling to save the mountain that eats men

The Cerro Rico is a UNESCO world heritage monument and a working silver mine — but its peak is caving in

POTOSI, Bolivia — The Andes mountain range surrounds this city in southwestern Bolivia, but there is one that stands apart from the rest — tall, red and almost perfectly conical. This is Potosi’s Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill, a mountain so heavily laced with silver that it has become legend.

Today, after nearly 500 years of constant mining for the silver, tin and zinc that funded the Spanish empire and shaped Bolivia’s economic fortunes, Cerro Rico’s bones are weakened, and its iconic peak is caving in. Now the race is on to reinforce the mountaintop and save this national monument through a government-funded $2.4 million fill-in project. The urgency is doubled because Cerro Rico is not just a testament to Bolivia’s history — it is also a maze of working mines that employ 15,000 miners, generating revenue that supports the entire city. 

The sinkhole at the top of Cerro Rico, which is roughly 50 feet across with an uncharted depth, drew national attention in 2011. Named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987, along with the city of Potosi, the mountain’s unmistakable form appears on Bolivia’s currency and the national shield. It represents a history of tremendous wealth but also suffering for the indigenous people and enslaved Africans who died mining it, earning Cerro Rico the title “the Mountain That Eats Men.” 

I am rich Potosi / Treasure of the world / King of Mountains / Envy of Kings.

First coat of arms of the city of Potosi, 1547

The collapsed upper cone of the historic silver deposit mine Cerro Rico in 2011.
Max Toranzos / Corbis

For many, imagining Cerro Rico without its peak is akin to imagining the Statue of Liberty without her torch. “Every day I see the Cerro, and I see my landscape,” says Luis Osvaldo Cruz Llanos, secretary of culture and tourism for the department of Potosi. Cruz Llanos’ father was a lifelong miner, and for him, like many natives of this colonial city, the mountain is part of his identity, and the thought of the peak collapsing is personal. “It’s like the mutilation of a part of yourself, like losing an ear or a nose,” he says.

A recent report by the International Council on Monuments and Sites calls the Cerro’s situation “urgent” and concludes that “The property is faced with considerable ascertained and potential threats and meets the conditions for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger.”

Saving the Cerro

Preserving Cerro Rico may be the best way to protect Potosi’s future. Aside from mining, there is very little industry here, but tourism is already a secondary source of income and could provide an alternate livelihood for thousands of people. But for Potosi to maintain its historic value, the mountain must survive not only its crumbling peak, but dozens of other sinkholes that pock its flanks.

In 2012, the Bolivian government began an ambitious project to pump ultra-light cement into the peak, stabilizing the brittle rock and halting its inward collapse. Despite the challenges presented by working in freezing conditions at 15,500 feet above sea level, the plan advanced. Bolivia’s state-owned mining company, commonly known by its Spanish acronym COMIBOL, predicted that in 2014 the fill-in project would be complete and the top of Cerro Rico restored to its former shape.

But last December the summit once again crumbled, and rock continues to tumble as if through a giant funnel into the depths of the mountain. Now, the fruit of last year’s labor, which looked so promising, is hanging, fractured, from the edge of the sinkhole, or littering the abyss below with metal and concrete. The stabilization project is currently on hold as workers wait to see whether a plan to pump tons of rock already stripped of minerals into the growing hole will be approved, but in the meantime the interior of the sinkhole continues to sink a couple centimeters a day.

A COMIBOL plan to pump rock already stripped of minerals into the growing hole has been approved; work begins today. 

According to Jhonny Lllally, the head of Potosi’s Civic Committee, an umbrella group of unions and other city organizations, the responsibility for this continued sinking lies with those miners who are working within 1,000 feet of the peak.

“While work continues over 4,400 meters [14,436 feet], the peak will sink. Whatever fill-in project is done, whatever material is used, even if it’s the latest technology, it’s going to sink,” Llally says, adding that the committee wants work halted in five areas identified as dangerously unstable. “In other areas work can continue.” 

Miners working on Cerro Rico, overlooking the city of Potosi, Bolivia, in 2011.
Tim Clayton / Corbis

And, Llally says, the Bolivian government’s close relationship with the nation’s powerful cooperative miners may be standing in the way.

“Sadly, the national government is not cooperating in the preservation of the Cerro Rico,” he says. “We understand that it’s a government that has many alliances with the cooperative miners, and that may be why it’s such a problem.” 

A 2004 presidential decree bans most underground mining above 4,400 meters on the Cerro, but it has not been enforced, and according to COMIBOL there are about 1,500 miners working underground above that altitude. There is rarely anyone present to police their work, and national and local government are loathe to anger the powerful cooperative mining sector — already riled by recent attempts to rewrite the nation’s mining laws — by arresting miners or otherwise forcibly removing them. A few miners have voluntarily shifted to other work sites, and the government is taking legal action against some others, but most remain. Relocation is proving a delicate and complicated task, and at least one mine shaft very close to the summit remains open after workers dynamited a gate set up to keep them out.

“We continue working, and we will continue,” says Santiago Cruz Palomino, vice president of FEDECOMIN, Potosi’s organization of cooperative miners. “While they search for another place that allows us to support our families, we are not leaving.”

Cruz Palomino says that the alternative sites COMIBOL has offered will require a tremendous amount of labor and investment to turn into functioning mines, and currently, at least, will not support workers and their families. He also says that miners close to the summit are being made scapegoats for destruction that has many other causes, such as hundreds of years of uncontrolled tunneling, and environmental factors such as rain, which wears away at the rock.

Another operation that is affected by the instability is the San Bartolomé project, operated by a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Coeur Mining, which harvests rock from the mountain’s surface. In 2009, the government suspended San Bartolomé from working near the peak after pressure from civic groups, though it continues to work above 4,400 meters in an area known as Huacajchi, which the company says is outside the Cerro Rico cone formation. The company says, further, that its work in no way contributes to the peak’s instability.

Our daily bread

Despite the great wealth Cerro Rico brought to kings and industrialists, the department of Potosi remains one of Bolivia’s poorest. As for employment outside of mining, there is little work for someone without much education or land, and certainly nothing that pays as well as mining: A day laborer in the mines working five days a week can earn $360 a month, more than double minimum wage.

The Calvario neighborhood sits at the very foot of Cerro Rico. Here, dozens of tiny shops are stocked with huge plastic sacks of coca, the small green leaf habitually chewed by miners; pickaxes; hard hats; safety masks; and small bottles of the potent, clear alcohol favored by workers. A few times a day, a luxury SUV rolls down the narrow, dusty streets, testament to the fortune some cooperative miners make thanks to recent high mineral prices.

Though the people who work Cerro Rico’s mines are organized into cooperatives, the system is not as egalitarian as the name implies. Many mines are run by a group of partners, who in turn hire teams of workers who are paid by the day but do not enjoy the pensions or health benefits available to their employers. So while a day laborer earns his perilous wage, a partner may earn nothing or make a fortune. 

Young miners throw minerals that will be collected and put into a truck. Over half a century has passed since the beginning of mining exploitation in Bolivia, but miners continue to live and work in inhumane conditions, and miners are starting to bring their children into the mines.
Axel Indik / Polaris

“The life of a miner is game of chance,” says Braulio Rios, who has worked in and around mines for more than 40 years. “I know cooperative miners who have worked for years and don’t even have a roof over their heads.” On the other hand, wealth can come in a moment. “Mining is like a game of poker, where you can win thousands in one night.”

Cooperatives shot into popularity with the dramatic tin price crash of the mid-1980s, which prompted COMIBOL to shut down its operations in Cerro Rico. Some miners hung on, got concessions or leases from the government and eked out a living. Twenty years later, in the mid-2000s, prices rose, and by late 2010 a troy ounce — slightly more than 31 g — of silver sold for nearly $30 on the international market, compared with less than $5 a decade earlier. Tin went through a similar bust and boom.

Those price hikes may be partly responsible for the sinkhole, as miners are drawn to rock formerly used to fill in old tunnels like those near the summit. According to COMIBOL sources, this extraction disturbs spaces connected to the sinkhole.

“Lodes that years ago were virtually worthless now have economic value and are quite profitable,” says Hilarion Andrade, a former miner who is now a COMIBOL supervisor of the stabilization project.

Death and El Tio

A group of miners chew coca leaves before the Miners Carnival in Potosi, Bolivia
Patricio Crooker / Archivolatino / Redux

From a distance, Cerro Rico seems two dimensional, a paper triangle pasted against a blazing blue sky. But once you set foot on the mountain it unfolds into an entire world, a limitless Martian landscape of rock, rusting equipment and pathways.

At 9 o’clock in the morning Jose Luis Mamani is leaning against a car outside Pailaviri, a large mine halfway up the mountain, getting ready to go to work. Around him a few Quechua Indian women are cooking stew on open stoves, and hungry men gather around, hunched over their bowls. Aside from the cooks, this is a man’s world. There are boys as young as 15, droves of young men and even some who are middle-aged, but no one over the age of 55. High mineral prices and an organizational structure that allows cooperative miners to rapidly mobilize thousands of people may be the basis here of power and political influence, but have not translated into many improvements in workers’ safety. 

Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but according to MUSOL, an organization that assists the widows of miners, four miners die due to accidents in the Cerro each month. “The cooperative miners use the argument, ‘Where are we going to work?’ but they don’t see the damage they can cause if they continue at this same pace,” says Paulina Ibeth Garabito, director of MUSOL. “On one hand, damage to a monument, but on the other to the human lives that would be lost if there is a collapse of the Cerro.”

Danger extends even beyond the mines themselves. “Silicosis is the miner’s birthright, and there is no cure,” Mamani says of the lung disease that commonly afflicts miners. Like many of his colleagues, he is resigned to the deadly power of the tunnels. He reaches into a green plastic bag, removes a coca leaf and adds it to the growing wad in his cheek. “I’ll change jobs once the illness starts to manifest.” Mamani plans to start a small business or invest in properties that will support him once his body can no longer withstand the work.

“For many miners, their father also died young of mal de mina [silicosis], and they entered the mine at an early age,” says Ibeth Garabito. “There’s a culture of death.”

Argentine tourists visiting the Cerro Rico mines.
Mehdi Chebil / Polaris

Inside a nearby mine is a roughly shaped statue of El Tio, the manifestation of man’s dangerous and delicate relationship with the mountain. Tio, or uncle, is the god of miners, a horned man with bulging eyes and a pointed beard. He is festooned with streamers, strewn with coca leaves and damp with alcohol. Neither good nor evil, Tio is like the mountain: capable of delivering both death and fabulous wealth.  

“A miner must have faith, but we play a double faith,” says miner Rios. “I am Catholic, but inside the mine I believe in the Tio.” 

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Coeur Mining is a U.S.-based, not a Canada-based, company.

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