Potosí Cooperative Mines

Cerro Rico de Potosi Mine


Useful Information

Location: Southeast of the city of Potosí.
(-19.606761, -65.743116)
Open: All year daily 8:45, 13:30.
[2022]
Fee: Adults BOB 130.
[2020]
Classification: MineSilver Mine
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Dimension: A=4,200 m asl.
Guided tours: individually guided by a miner, D=4-5 h.
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: R. Dodoy (1990): Mining and Agriculture in Highland Bolivia, Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
W.E. Wilson, A. Petrov (1999): Famous Mineral Localities: Cerro Rico de Potosi (Bolivia) The Mineralogical Record, 30(1), 9-36.
C. G. Cunningham, R.E. Zartman, E. H. McKee, R. O. Rye, C. W. Naeser, V.O. Sanjines, G.E. Ericksen, V.F. Tavera (1996):
The age and thermal history of Cerro Rico de Potosi, Bolivia
Mineralium Deposita, Volume 31, Issue 5, 1996, pp. 374-385. online online DOI pdf
Address:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1545 silver in Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) discovered.
1825 Bolivia achieves independence.
1980s Bolivian government abandons the money-losing state mines.
1987 inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Geology

The Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) is considered the world's largest silver deposit. The Cerro Rico de Potosi Mine encompasses four veins, San Miguel, San Pedro, Mesapata and Alkco Barreno. It is believed to hold 5.5 million metric tons of ore with more than 938,130 kg of silver. Additionally, the ore contains 250,004 tons of zinc and 72,377 tons of tin. The reserves of San Pedro vein alone are projected to be over 11,937,569 tons of ore. This means 208,320 kilos of silver and 62,496 metric tons of zinc. These numbers were published lately in COMIBOL prospective reserve reports.

The volcanic rock is highly altered, silicified, pyritized or chloritized.

Description

Potosí is the world's highest town. After the discovery in 1545 of silver in Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), Potosí grew into the largest and most opulent city in the Americas. The city's rich colonial architecture and tragic history as a colonial mining town has earned recognition from UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Various Tourist Agencies as well as some of the younger miners offers tours of the silver mines. Your visit will come as a real eye openers as nothing has changed for the last 450 years. The miners work in appalling conditions, the ceilings are low and the passages steep and muddy. The temperature varies from below freezing to 45 °C. All work is done by hand as in Agricola's day, in an atmosphere polluted by toxic chemicals. No wonder most men die after working for only 10 years in the mines. Visitors should wear their oldest clothes, and scrounge a helmet.


Text by Tony Oldham (2002). With kind permission.

There is actually no silver mine at potosi, the Cerro Rico Mountain (4,782 m asl) is owned by COMIBOL, Bolivia's national mining company. However, most of the silver veins are mined out and in the 1980s the Bolivian government abandoned the money-losing state mines. In a way they were open to anyone willing to work them. This lead to the foundation of two dozen small-scale, often family run, mining cooperatives. They lease their respective sections of the mine from the government for a fee of 6% of their earnings. They are no mining companies, have no financial background, and are not able to afford the safer modern technology used in larger mining operations. But the cooperatives provide a very basic health insurance and control funds raised from "adventure" tourists who take tours of the mines and visit the workers. Each miner buys a small stake in the mountain and works it with his "assistants", young boys, many of them not yet in their teens. He is an entrepreneur, has to cover the costs of his equipment, but remains the sole owner of the material he extracts. His profit is based on production. The actual mining companies simply purchase the refined minerals and don't care about the working conditions.

12,000 miners, the big majority of indigenous Quechan descent, have to organise their own tools and security devices. As a result safety precautions are limited to hand gloves and helmets. They use carbide lamps until a few years ago, and due to the elevation of more than 4,000 m asl oxygene is already scarce. If the blasting removes the remaining oxygen the lamps went out, a warning sign to get out of the shaft immediately. Now they use electric lamps, which do not consume oxygen, but also do not warn. Asbestosis or silicosis afflicts every miner, miners who begin working as young men die before they are 50, many die after 20 years in the mines.

The cooperatives offer tours into their respective mine. One of the miners makes the guide, and brings the visitors to one of the most harmless tunnels. There they can watch the miners at work. There is no museum, no trails, no electrical light, these are probably the most authentic and dangerous show mines on earth. Visitors should avoid to suck or lick their fingers because of asbestos and trace elements like arsenic. If you plan to visit such a mine we strongly recommend to book at a trip operator, who will provide the basic equipment. If you want more safety bring your own helmet, headlamp, gloves, appropriate clothes, a small backpack, and probably a working mask to filter the dust, not that difficult due to the pandemic, but exhausting due to the low oxygen. However, a few hours in the mine will not kill you and not make you sick, that takes a few years.

It’s important that you choose a reputable tour company, for your safety and their ethical responsibility towards miners. Most offer two tours, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The times and prices differ, but we have given sort of typical values above. We guess the size of the group is a good indicator for the quality. Some Potosi mine tours have up to 14 tourists with a single guide, which is especially dangerous if one of group freaks out. Rule of thumb: the lower, the better. And two guides are better than one guide. And there are things sold before you go, like soft drinks, but also coca leaves and sticks of dynamite. They are gifts for the miners, you visit them at their working place, and they get no money for you watching them, so a litte "tip" or "bribe" is always a good idea. Good tour operators will help you with this.

As far as we understand there were now and then attempts by the government to partner with a mining company. A few years ago they planned a partnership with Franklin Mining, Bolivia S.A., a subsidiary company of Franklin Mining, Inc. The idea was to increase silver production by the introduction of modern mining technology. They dreamed to push Bolivia to be one of the biggest producers of silver in the world. And they promised it would increase the working conditions of the miners dramatically. Unfortunately all those fancy ideas fail due to one simple fact: the hill is mined out and scraping out the remains works only if you keep costs very low by exploiting the miners.

Legend has it, that during 450 years of mining enough metal was extracted from the deposit to build a bridge of silver from South America to Europe. True or not, this mine was of enormous importance and economic value. The silver from Potosi was the foundation of the Spanish Empire. The city Potosi was one of the world's largest and wealthiest cities at its peak in the 17th century. But in the early 19th century the bigger veins were mined out and when Bolivia achieved independence in 1825 the mines were nearly exhausted and Potosí's population had already decreased from 200,000 to 10,000. At the same time there was a fall in silver prices, obviously other mines increased production, which ended the fame of Potosi for good. Only the Bolivian expression "un potosí" for someone unbelievably rich, remains.

There is one last thing we stumbled upon, and we must comment. There are some authors arguing along the fact that Europe became rich because of the silver from Potosi. That's obviously nonsense. Silver is completely useless, it's not needed for any important technology and if you use it for spoons they get black and are hard to clean. It's just the immaterial value we attribute to silver, being rich has actually nothing to do with owning silver. The silver from Potosi destroyed numerous lives in Europe, for example the silver mine at MineSchwaz in Austria went bankrupt and was closed. Whole towns went bankrupt, many miners had to relocate and find new jobs, mine owners previously rich, became poor in a few years. It's impossible to attribute ethic values to such developments. But it's possible to attribute ethic values to enslaving indigenous people and the exploitation of miners. And while the Spaniards are responsible for introducing such structures, Bolivia achieved independence in 1825, and they failed to change anything in almost two centuries.