top of page

Cerro Rico, Potosì

Cerro Rico, Potosì, 2015

May El Tìo protect my descent to this hell - the young miner said while entering in the dark. El Tío (The Uncle), is believed in Cerro Rico, Potosí, Bolivia to be the "Lord of the Underworld'. There are many statues of this devil-like spirit in the mines of Cerro Rico. Miners bring offerings such as cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol for the statues and believe that if El Tío is not fed, he will take matters into his own hands. Villagers of Potosi ritually slaughter a llama and smear its blood on the entrance to the mines.

Cerro Rico is a mountain in the Andes near the Bolivian city of Potosí and was famous for providing vast quantities of silver for Spain during the period of the New World Spanish Empire. The mountain, which is popularly conceived of as being "made of" silver ore, caused the city of Potosí to become one of the largest cities in the New World and provided the necessary economic lubrication for the industrial revolution in Europe. It is known as 'mountain that eats men' because of the large number of workers who died in the mines. It is estimated that up to 8 million men have died in the Cerro Rico since the 16th century. After 1800, the silver mines were depleted, making tin the main product. This eventually led to a slow economic decline. Nevertheless, the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Mines are now almost entirely operated by mining cooperatives, which are essentially groups of independent miners who extract small quantities of minerals from otherwise abandoned mineshafts. Although cooperative mining exists in a handful of countries around the world, Bolivia is unique in the degree to which the mining sector is dominated by cooperatives, both in terms of total workforce and political clout. The mountain is still a significant contributor to the city's economy, employing some 15,000 miners. Miners work without electricity, lifts have no walls, oxygen is rare, and the tunnels are not high enough to stand up in. Mining is done by brute labor. Miners start at the age of 15. Some of them even believe that chewing coca can protect them from the deadly silicon, arsenic, and asbestos dust that choke the mountain tunnels. Due to poor worker conditions, such as a lack of protective equipment against the constant inhalation of dust, many of the miners contract silicosis and have a life expectancy of around 40 years.

bottom of page