The mountain that eats men: breathing its last?

Tuesday, 14 January, 2014

After yesterday’s thoughts on artisanal mining from Zambia, we bring you a recent cautionary tale from the Guardian, another fascinating angle on the many dangers of small-scale (if not, in this case, illegal) mining.

So-called ‘El Cerro Rico,’ aka ‘the rich hill’ is bang on top of what used to be the world’s largest silver deposit, in Potosi in present-day Bolivia. Its riches were central to the Spanish empire and it remains as crucial to today’s local economy: 15% of Potosí's men work in mining, and thousands more in connected industries.  Work on and in the mountain has been constant for near enough 500 years.

The downside of that is that internally it resembles a chunk of Ementhal and parts of the peak threaten collapse, with potentially catastrophic consequences for anyone inside the mountain at the time, living near it, or - in the longer term - economically dependent on it. One government response is a highly accelerated plan to fill in one of the more dramatic symptoms of the mountains’s perilous state - an enormous sinkhole that appeared in 2011.

Conditions are not good. As the article puts it: 

“[In the Imperial era] Cerro Rico became known as "the mountain that eats men". Conditions today have barely improved: the colonial-era props that still brace many of the tunnels mark the threshold to another world, where El Tío, the horned god of the mines, demands sacrifices of coca leaves, alcohol and llama blood, and safety equipment consists of a helmet. Those miners who survive the cave-ins, explosions and poisonous gasses often die of lung disease years after they leave the mine behind.”

The relevance of this to more ‘conventional’ CSR is perhaps tangential. The Bolivian government is attempting to deal with a problem the seeds of which lie in a different epoch entirely. And its potential solutions encompass all the technical and other difficulties of trying to shore up a broken mountain with “a super-light mixture of cement, polyethylene and sand layered with metal nets and supported by arches set within the mountain,” working at 4,768 metres above sea level (the same height, give or take a few metres, as Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc). If nothing else, though, the situation illustrates the complex web of difficulties that arise when an entire community is dependent on artisanal mining that has developed over time, without organisation, and without any concerted effort to provide alternatives to those living on it.

In the words of the article again:

“Some Bolivians say the [current government safety] measures are insufficient and are calling for a ban on mining near the peak, a proposal that in turn outrages miners who depend on their mineral concessions – several of which are perilously close to the sinkhole.

"For some people, [the mountain] is like the Eiffel Tower, and for others it's a source of work," said Wilber Garnica, who operates a tour agency in Potosí. "There are people who depend on mines, when prices are good and when they are bad, and they continue in the mine because there's no option."


The mountain's flanks are pockmarked with dozens more sinkholes, which trace the routes of depleted veins and can widen with little warning. Yet even these obvious signs of danger do little to deter miners: some 12,000 people, almost all indigenous Bolivians, work in small mining co-operatives.”

Some hope exists, in the form of tourism - El Cerro Rico was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987 - and an approach of the kind more usually trumpeted on this site, of creating “a long-term solution that includes moving miners to new jobs by creating safer and secure options for the many who depend on the Cerro Rico”. Details are scant, though, as they too often are. And as the VP of the local Civic Committee says, "It could be a matter of time until the whole thing comes down and we have nothing.”