Potosi and Cerro Rico (The Rich Mountain)

“We eat the mountain, and the mountain eats us”, say the people of Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world: 4090 meters high. The city has a great historical significance, as Mont Potosi was the main source of silver for Spain in the colonial times, and the main way in which it financed its empire for several centuries. It is said the mountain hosted so much wealth they could have built a silver bridge all the way from Potosi to Madrid, and still have enough to transport to Spain across the bridge. In Spanish they still use to this day the phrase “worth a Potosi” to mean “worth a fortune”.


A little history

Cerro de Potosi, also known as Cerro Rico (The Rich Mountain), sits with all its impessive 4824 meters above the city of Potosi and watches. Legend says the rich potential of the mountain was first discovered by the Incas around 1462, but they did not take a single piece from it because they were instructed by a voice from inside the mountain to “not take any silver from this mountain, because it is meant for other masters.” The Incas complied with the voice’s request, and the new masters (the Spanish) found it as soon as they arrived on those lands and started exploiting it around 1546. This led to the appearence of the city of Potosi, and soon the town was so rich and sought after that it became one of the largest cities in the world at the time, its population exceeding that of London and Paris.

The Spaniards did not play around with the mining, and exploited the mountain so intensely that it is said to have decreased several hundred meters in two centuries. The workers were primarily native Indians used as slaves in the mines, and the working conditions were so severe that they dropped like flies in very short time. The extremely hard work, virtually non-existent labor protection, as well as the poisoning from the mercury used in the processing of the silver, have made the Spanish require new workforce at the beginning of the 17th century. So they resorted to importing 1500-2000 Africans Slaves per year, who of course had the same fate as the Indians. The estimated figure of how many slaves died in the mine of Potosi in the colonial times is a few hundred thousand or 8 million, depending on the source. It is also said that, on average, a slave survived in the mine for no longer than 6 months.

The city continued its spectacular growth, however, and in the 17th century it housed nearly 100 churches, it was said that its streets were paved with silver, and the luxury and opulence overshadowed that of any other city in the world.

After 1800 the silver mines were pretty much depleted though, so the next metal to be exploited was tin. As the quantity of silver coming out of the mountain decreased, so did the city’s economic success. Zinc took over after tin, and that is the most profitable metal exploited in Potosi today. The mountain continues to be exploited for silver to this day, but the quality is clearly inferior to that in the good times, the “silver times”.


Working conditions and health issues

Life has changed a lot since the colonial era, but the working conditions of the Cerro Rico miners seem not to have advanced much. The average life span of the miners is 40 years, and after about 15 years in the mine most of them contract silicosis, a lung disease caused by continuous inhalation of dust. Of those with silicosis, 80% also have tuberculosis. Most work as part of small cooperatives, and some of them work independently. That means no insurance, no protection, no nothing. And they can’t stop working either because if they do, they have nothing to put on the table the next day. The government provides a miners pension for those with silicosis, but only if the disease has already taken over 80-90% of their lungs (in which case they have only a few months to live anyway). So if they have silicosis in a proportion less than 80%, they continue to work, and when they reach the “necessary” level and stop, they know they only have a few months left to “enjoy” life. So “The mountain that eats men”, as another one of its names goes, seems to be a cruel yet true illustration of the reality of Mount Potosi.


And what were we doing there?

You can find out all about our meeting with the deity of the underground and the upset miners in the next post. Also there about the magical plant and magical drink. Aaaand about the marriage proposal.


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