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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

Cerro Rico: The Mountain That Eats People

Cerro Rico has been one of the most important places ever. It fueled the Spanish conquest and allowed Europe – who were in an economic slump- to have rapid economic growth and prosperity. The silver accounted for 60% of the world´s supply in the17 century, and indirectly fueled the industrial revolution. Even the city of Potosi became one of the biggest cities in the world home to 200 000 people. That was more than London in the 17 century.

It was said that they produced so much silver it could have made a bridge of silver stretching from Potosi to Madrid; however the bodies of the dead could have equally stretched from Madrid back to Potosi.

Every part of the silver mine created death. To mine the silver they had to go in and work 20 hours a day through inhumane working conditions. A combination of soclysis (dust in the lungs), over exhertion, mine collapses and accidents, caused an average lifespan of six months. To produce the silver slaves used Mercury to separate it from other rocks. Mercury posioning caused the producers´ hair to fall out, blindness and a very quick death. To press the silver they ran it through wedges, and it wasn´t uncommon for people to lose most of their fingers running the press. All of these instances combine for a total of 8 million casualties.

The conditions today are not much different in them mines. Our guide tells us the mines used to be constructed better in the days of the Spanish conquest. The mine continues to drive the local economy, and around 14000 men work in the mines daily, 2000 of which are underage child labourers. While Dragons visited they were still trying to recover the bodies of two boys (17 and 23) who had been stuck in the mine for two weeks. Cave in.  Miners believe once they set foot into Cerro Rico they leave religion behind.  That once in the world of Cerro Rico, they are at the mercy of Teo, the devil. Despite their offerings of coca leaves and alcohol, Teo has kept the average lifespan of a miner to 40.

Is this the price to pay to fuel humanities greed?