The Cerro Rico or Rich Hill (also known as Cerro de Potosi) is the largest silver deposit in the world, and in 1987 the UNESCO named it a world heritage site. Located in the Andes near the city of Potosi in Bolivia, the Cerro is often said to be “made of silver”, because of the vast amount of silver that was mined (and continues to be mined) in this mountain for centuries. It was this wealth that funded Spain during the New World Spanish Empire period, and also made the city of Potosi the second largest city of the New World.
Around the 1800s began the mining of tin and ore as a solution to the lack of silver in the mines, this led to a slow decline in the economy of Potosi and Bolivia. However to this very day the Cerro is still mined for silver, tin, ore, lead, zinc, and employs about 15,000 miners. Many of which due to inferior working conditions such as daily inhalation of dust, and the lack of modern tools and protective equipment has cause some of the miners to contract silicosis, an occupational lung disease that in most cases means a life expectancy of about 40 years. The Cerro Rico is also infamously known as “The Mountain That Eats Men” it’s said that up to 8 million miners have died in this mountain since the 16th century.
Cerro Rico – El Tio
Such is the fear of this mountain that the miners pray to El Tio or The Uncle a lord of the underworld, which is said to offer protection to the miners. In the mines can be found many statues of this demon-like looking spirit, El Tio watches over the mines and is believed to bring destruction if it’s not fed. So in order to ensure protection from El Tio miners bring offerings; alcohol, coca leaves, and cigarettes. Also some of the locals from Potosi ritually sacrifices a llama and smear the blood at the entrance of the mines. However most of the miners and the people in general of Potosi and Bolivia are in fact 80% Catholic, they simply believe in both El Tio and Jesus, this is their culture. After centuries and centuries of constant mining for silver a sinkhole appeared in 2011 at the top of the mountain, although the sinkhole was filled with ultra-light cement, the summit still sinks a few centimeters each year.
Many locals fear that the entire city of Potosi will one day sink, either due to the sinkhole itself or because of the loss of the city’s main source of income. Likewise, the “uncontrolled mining operations” have risked “degrading the site” to such an extent that in 2014 the UNESCO added this city and Potosi to the list of endangered sites. What a shame to lose such an incredible and historic place, but as the old saying goes; “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”.