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The Overlooked Genocide of Potosi´s Cerro Rico

Founded in 1545 by Spanish Conquistadoras as a mining town, Potosi became the third most populated city in the world within a century of establishment, behind only London and Shanghai.  The world´s highest city, at about 4100 meters, lies at the foot of the Cerro Rico, or the Rich Hill, which was deemed to be ¨made of¨exploitable silver and gold. An estimated 2 billion ounces of silver has been extracted from the mountain, much of which bankrolled the Spanish Empire and allowed them to pay back their debt to the Catholic Church.   The absurd amount of wealth accumulated in Potosi during this time triggered the existence of capitalism and through the church, money was funneled to the rest of the world kicking off the European Renaissance and industrialism as we know it today.  The world would be a very different place if not for Potosi.

The Holocaust, which is largely perceived to be the worst genocide in human history, took the lives of an estimated 6 million Jews  during World War II. El Cerro Rico is famous for being the ´Mountain that Eats Men´, reportedly claiming the lives of around 8 million miners since colonial times.  The victims of this atrocity were enslaved indians or imported African slaves, and for centuries they toiled and died as a result of mining accidents or from over-exhaustion.   This is an immensely important historical incident that is seldom spoken of in most history classes I have ever been around, and I don´t quite understand why that is.  I encourage you to spread awareness about this too-often overlooked genocide.

After around 500 years of continuous exploitation, one can surely assume that the mountain´s stability has been greatly compromised.  According to an engineer by the name of Rene Espinoza who has conducted a three year study of the mountain there are over 600 entrances, most of which are now abandoned, and over 60 miles of veins that have essentially hollowed out this monument to the devastation of the Spanish conquest.  Rene also believes that total collapse of the mountain is possible, endangering the livelihood and more importantly the lives of the 15,000 miners who are contracted by the Bolivian government to risk their lives day in and day out in these dark, cold, and hazardous tunnels.    Despite measures to ensure the mountain remains on its feet, the summit sinks by a few centimeters every year.

We were guided into El Cerro Rico and immediately were able to feel the weight of the mountain.  Our guide was a local miner who took us into the vein where he and 10 of his compatriots work all year in search of silver.  Their earnings are based on their findings. If they are not successful, they are not paid.  And you can imagine that after 500 years of mining, the mountain is pretty dried up.  For this reason, fathers and their sons often work two day shifts with little respite in search of the funds that will keep their families off the streets.  We put on our rubber boots and ventured into a place where so many have suffered and perished.  About 100 yards into the vein, we stopped to pay homage to El Tio who is worshipped in this area where it is believed God has no influence.  We sprinkled our offerings of Coca leaves and asked that this menacing demonic figure protect us from the many perils of the mountain.  With every step deeper into the vein, I was enveloped by the cold and felt increasingly vulnerable, at the mercy of the mountain.

Our headlamps were the only source of light that we had, and in the shimmer of the light were the floating dust particles that plagued the lungs of so many who worked here. Silicosis is a disease contracted by inahling dust.  Almost every miner who has worked there for too long has it, and it pretty much cuts their life span in half.  I was strcuk that the miners did not wear face masks as some form of minimal protection from this horrendous illness.  I was hesitant to ask our guide out of fear that it might be a touchy subject.

¨Cuanto tiempo has trabajado en las mineas?¨ I asked him, beating around the bush

¨35 años. Entonces ya tengo la enfermedad en mis pulmones¨ he offered with an earie air of pride.

Getting the sense that it wasn´t a subject i needed to shy away from, i proceeded to ask him why workers did not wear any masks, and he informed me that it would prevent them from chewing their sacred coca leaves which fuel them, combatting their hunger and fatigue.  Talk about priorities…

It was a very potent experience that I took a great deal away from.  I encourage you to watch a documentary called ¨The Devils Miner¨which elicits the issue of child labor in el Cerro Rico.  If you are moved by what you see and want to get involved, here is a link with a message from the director´s of the film on how to get involved through the many organizations that work on the ground to fight this harsh reality.


Thanks for reading.