Cerro Rico: The Mountain That Eats Men

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High in the Andes, in southwest Bolivia, towering above one of the highest cities in the world, stands the cone-shaped peak of Cerro Rico —the “rich mountain”. The name was given by the Spanish Colonials for the huge quantities of silver it contained. The Spanish thought that the entire mountain was made of silver ore.

In 1545, a small mining town was established at the foot of Cerro Rico, and some 3 million natives were forced to work at the mines. Hundreds of thousands died from accidents or killed by overwork, hunger and disease. Nearly five centuries later, the Spanish overloads are long gone, but conditions deep in the bowels of the mountains appear to have changed little.

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Photo credit: TomaB/Flickr

Dozens of men and young boys still die in the mines from cave-in and collapses. Centuries of mining have left the mountain riddled with thousands of holes and unstable, and there is a serious risk of the entire mountain coming down. Indeed, the mountain has already diminished in height by a few hundred meters due to extensive mining during the Spanish monarchy.

According to historian Eduardo Galeano, an estimated 8 million men have died in the Cerro Rico since the 16th century, although critics believe the figure is exaggerated and includes all the people who left the region around the mines, and not just those who died working in the mines. While it might be difficult to say how many people actually lost lives to the mountain, the figure is undoubtedly huge, earning Cerro Rico the nickname, “the Mountain that Eats Men.”

While many die from accidents, the greatest toll comes from silicosis, a lung disease caused by breathing dust. Usually, in modern mines, the dust is prevented by a continuous stream of water directed out of the drill tip. There is no such provision in Cerro Rico. Here, the dust drifts back down the mine shaft where it is breathed into the lungs by the miners. Once inside the lungs, the dust sits and causes scarring of the lung tissues accompanied by chronic bronchitis-like symptoms, fever, chest pain, weight loss, weakness and eventually death. Very few live to the age of forty. According to the local widows' association, 14 women are widowed each month.

Today, the mines no longer produce in quantities it did back in the 18th century. Potosi has been on a slow economic decline ever since.

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Photo credit: Toto/Flickr

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Photo credit: green_lava/Flickr

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Situated at an altitude of 4,090 meters, Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world. Photo credit: travelmag.com/Flickr

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Photo credit: Mariano Mantel/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / BBC / NPR / PRI

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