POTOSI, Bolivia (Reuters) - High silver prices are drawing a frenzy of miners to a colonial-era mine at Potosi in Bolivia, but the mine has become so dangerous that authorities fear the mine, part of a World Heritage Site, could collapse.
Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) rises majestically above the town of Potosi, a symbol of a colonial past where Inca slaves died by the thousand extracting silver to enrich their Spanish masters.
Nearly five centuries later, thousands of ill-equipped and untrained miners are turning its graceful cone into a sponge of flimsy tunnels that threaten to cave in on miners working below, prompting Bolivian officials to consider partial closure.
“It’s a very important symbol for the people of Potosi and for the people of Bolivia,” said German Elias, mining director at Potosi’s local government. “The Cerro Rico is a monument that virtually sums up the history of mining.”
Miners have already protested the possibility that parts of the Cerro could be closed, sending a warning to leftist President Evo Morales, who has clashed with the country’s notoriously rebellious miners over a number of issues in recent months.
The miners -- who work in small cooperatives -- would rather take their chances with danger than earn less money elsewhere or face unemployment.
“This is the only way we have to make a living and we have to risk our lives to work here in the mine,” said 23-year-old Julio Mamani. He earns less than $20 per day, relatively good for South America’s poorest country, where the average monthly wage is about $115.
He pushed a wheel-barrow heaped with rubble to be loaded onto a cart and carried out to the daylight above. A 13-year-old boy worked nearby.
Legend has it that enough metal was extracted from Cerro Rico to build a bridge of silver from South America to Europe, and the mine has left an indelible mark on Bolivian culture due to the cruel toll it took on indigenous slaves.
Its vast reserves turned the nearby city of Potosi into the most populous in the Americas in the 17th century, with some 120,000 inhabitants -- more than London, Paris or Madrid at the time.
A slump in silver prices threw its elaborate colonial churches and mansions into a long decline and, while the recent metals boom has brought a little prosperity back to Potosi, the chilly highland region is still one of Bolivia’s poorest.
“Mining started in the Cerro Rico in 1545, and it hasn’t stopped since,” said Manuel Farfan, the regional head of Bolivia’s state mining company Comibol. “Production’s increased today because of the prices,” he said.
Today about 15,000 miners work the site every day in round-the-clock shifts, and conditions have not changed much since Spanish conquerors brought slaves to work here nearly 500 years ago.
The centuries of mining mean rich seams of silver are harder to find so greater risks are being taken.
“There are few places with a lot of silver so the danger is that miners are excavating the natural pillars that act like internal beams inside the Cerro,” said Samuel Rosales, a former miner and sociologist who does research for Care International, a nongovernmental organization.
Potosi’s mining director, Elias, said irresponsible removal of the natural beams meant more and more pressure was building up inside the mountain.
“The exploitation has caused a kind of sinking to take place in some parts of the sides of the Cerro Potosi in the recent past,” he said.
Regional and national mining officials and experts from the state geology service, Sergeotecmin, are about to start work on a survey of the site.
Converting the site into an open-pit mine would cut the risks.
But local people have fought past proposals that would change forever the graceful silhouette of the mountain, which stands behind the chilly Andean city that lies nearly 4,000 meters (13,125 feet).
“The people of Potosi wouldn’t allow it because the Cerro Rico is precious to all Bolivians,” Elias said.
additional reporting by Helen Popper in La Paz