Mines of Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia

After centuries of mining the bowels of Cerro Rico, the iconic mountain risks to collapse, threatening the whole city of Potosi.


Since colonial times, Potosi has been a world famous mining city. The mountain dominating over Potosi city is Cerro Rico, also called by the locals “the mountain which eats men”. During the 16th century its numerous and profitable mines made it the second largest city in the Americas after Mexico City, and primary sponsor to the Spanish Monarchy. It was estimated that from the 16th century more than 8 million miners died due to accidents or diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances. 

Even today, the conflicts that emerge relate to the exploitation of mineral resources at Potosi and involve several actors: the Government, mines, social movements, workers and unions.

Each of the 15.000 miners of Cerro Rico is member of one of the 16 cooperatives which enjoy a lease contract granted by the Bolivian State. Only one mining multinational company exploits currently a Cerro Rico's mine: the San Bartolome one (Coeur Mining Inc.). By the beginning of the 2000s there were 34 cooperatives operating. Although called “cooperatives” the benefits are not even close to be equally shared as for instance the workers have no insurance and no right to pension. Such precarious situation for the miners also places a higher burden on their wives who have to take care of their husbands’ health and their existence becomes even harder if they become widow.

The World Heritage Committee (UNESCO) wrote down the City of Potosi on the List of World Heritage in Danger in June 2014. After centuries of uncontrolled and insatiable mining exploitation, the Cerro Rico risks to collapse and so threatens the whole city of Potosi. After the announcement by the UNESCO Committee, the cooperatives and the concerned governmental entities opened negotiations in order to plan the relocation of some of the cooperatives operating in Cerro Rico by granting them other mining concessions.  

Basic Data
NameMines of Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Land acquisition conflicts
Mineral ore exploration
Tailings from mines
Specific CommoditiesWater
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsThe Cerro Rico mountain's mines are exploited since the 16th century. Today miners' cooperatives and one North-American mining company exploit the numerous gold and silver mines of the mountain of Potosi.
Level of Investment (in USD)135000000
Type of PopulationUrban
Start Date1997
Company Names or State EnterprisesCoeur Mining Inc. from United States of America - The only foreign multinational operating in Cerro Rico's San Bartolome mine
Relevant government actorsCOMIBOL (Corporación Minera de Bolivia), Ministry of Mines Bolivia, Fencomin (Federación Nacional de Cooperativas Mineras), Sergeomin (Servicio Nacional de Geología y Técnico de Minas), AJAM (Autoridad Jurisdiccional Administrativa Minera)
International and Financial InstitutionsOverseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) from United States of America
UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from France
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersPotosi Miners Association, MUSOL, Potosí's civic committee (COMICPO)
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)HIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingFarmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Informal workers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of MobilizationBlockades
Land occupation
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Objections to the EIA
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Mine tailing spills
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Global warming, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Deaths, Accidents, Occupational disease and accidents, Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Malnutrition
OtherUp to 4 workers killed every month, high rates of silicosis (an incurable lung disease). An average of 20 people die each month from work related accidents. According to a 2003 study by the Bolivian National Statistic Institute 98% of local children under 5 years old developed diarrhoea and intestinal problems.
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Specific impacts on women, Other socio-economic impacts
Potential: Increase in violence and crime
Otherchild labor, widows with low income
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseDeaths
Strengthening of participation
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.Although enjoying the closeness to Cerro Rico mines, the inhabitants of Potosi have remain miserable since the arrival of the Spaniards.
Sources and Materials

Supreme Decree N21060 of 2005 Privatisation of the Mining Sector

Bill 689 on the Reform of the Mining Code of 1997 by Gonzalo Snchez de Lozada

Convention 169 ILO


Del grito pionero ... al silencio? las radios sindicales mineras en la Bolivia de hoy, Karina, Miller, 2006
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La dictadura minada. La huelga de hambre de las mujeres mineras, Jean-Pierre, Lavaud, 2003
[click to view]

Diego Andreucci, Isabella M. Radhuber, Limits to “counter-neoliberal” reform: Mining expansion and the marginalisation of post-extractivist forces in Evo Morales’s Bolivia, Geoforum
[click to view]


Mineria al Dia, compilacion de noticias sobre la mina Potosi
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Comunidades afectadas por la minera. Pronunciamiento de Potosi, OLCA, 2006
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'Bolivia's Cerro Rico mines killed my husband. Now they want my son', The Guardian, 24/06/2014
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City of Potosí (Plurinational State of Bolivia) added to List of World Heritage in Danger, UNESCO, 17/06/2014
[click to view]

Compilation of news about the Cerro Rico mines, in Spanish
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Cooperativas dejarán Cerro Rico a cambio de 2.500 has, 24/11/2014
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Comibol dará 13 áreas mineras a 17 cooperativas del Cerro Rico, La Razon, 08/04/2014
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Desechos mineros ingresan a la ciudad de Potosi, OCMAL, 24/08/2015
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Other Documents

Miners at Cerro Rico, Bolivia Sociery of Economic Geologists
[click to view]

View over the Cerro Rico, the "mountain that eats men", Potosi city The Guardian
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorLucie Greyl
Last update08/02/2016