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Historic Bolivian Mountain Facing Collapse

October 21, 2010

Heavy mining and landslides threaten to destroy a Bolivian mountain that houses one of the largest silver deposits on Earth, Jose Arturo Cardenas of AFP reported on Thursday.

Cerro de Potosi, which towers more than 15,000 feet above sea level near the Bolivian city of Potosi, is often called Cerro Rico or “rich hill” due to the supply of silver it contains. Thanks to the mountain, Potosi was once the wealthiest city in South America, according to Cardenas.

However, the desire for its rich mineral content, which includes lead and zinc in addition to silver, drives an average of 12,000 workers–many of whom are children from poverty-stricken homes–into the mines each day. As a result, Cardenas reports that over 55 miles worth of tunnel has been dug throughout Cerro Rico, and more than 4,000 tons of rock and mineral are extracted daily.

Cerro Rico was the primary source of silver for the Spanish during their conquest of the New World starting in the mid-16th century. An estimated 41,000 metric tons of silver were mined from the mountain between the 1550s and the 1780s. These days, however, the thousands of workers who enter the mines often do so for little more than $1 per day, Cardenas reports.

Nonetheless, the citizens of Potosi are attempting to band together and save their collapsing landmark–not to mention the lives of the miners within. According to AFP, a 17-year-old miner died of carbon monoxide poisoning earlier this week, becoming the 20th person killed in the mountains in less than two years according to Federation of Mining Cooperatives (Fedecomin) statistics.

“What is the national government doing?” Fedecomin head Julio Quinones told Cardenas. “What bothers us”¦ is that the president can mobilize immediately to get involved (in the recent rescue of trapped Chilean miners), but when such accidents occur in Potosi or elsewhere in Bolivia, which sees collapses with tragic results, (President Evo Morales) never gets involved.”

In 1987, the city of Potosi was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). According to the official UNESCO website, the area surrounding Cerro Rico was “regarded as the world’s largest industrial complex” in the 1500s.

Among the key features of the historically significant city identified by UNESCO were “the industrial monuments of the Cerro Rico, where water is provided by an intricate system of aqueducts and artificial lakes; the colonial town with the Casa de la Moneda; the Church of San Lorenzo; several patrician houses; and the barrios mitayos, the areas where the workers lived.”

Image Caption: Potosi with Cerro Rico in the background. Credit: Gerd Breitenbach/Wikipedia

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