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Mines of Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia


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

Name of conflict:Mines of Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia
State or province:Potosi
Location of conflict:Potosi
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict: 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict: 2nd level :Mineral ore exploration
Tailings from mines
Land acquisition conflicts
Specific commodities:Land

Project Details and Actors

Project details:

The 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:135000000
Type of populationUrban
Start of the conflict:1997
Company names or state enterprises:Coeur Mining Inc. from United States of America - The only foreign multinational operating in Cerro Rico's San Bartolome mine
Relevant government actors:COMIBOL (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 Finance InstitutionsOverseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) from United States of America
UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from France
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Potosi Miners Association, MUSOL, Potosí's civic committee (COMICPO)

Conflict and Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Informal workers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Land occupation
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Objections to the EIA
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches

Impacts of the project

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
Other Health impactsUp 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-economical 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
Other socio-economic impactschild labor, widows with low income


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Strengthening of participation
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Although enjoying the closeness to Cerro Rico mines, the inhabitants of Potosi have remain miserable since the arrival of the Spaniards.

Sources and Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

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

Convention 169 ILO

Supreme Decree N21060 of 2005 Privatisation of the Mining Sector

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Del grito pionero ... al silencio? las radios sindicales mineras en la Bolivia de hoy, Karina, Miller, 2006

La dictadura minada. La huelga de hambre de las mujeres mineras, Jean-Pierre, Lavaud, 2003

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

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Mineria al Dia, compilacion de noticias sobre la mina Potosi

Comunidades afectadas por la minera. Pronunciamiento de Potosi, OLCA, 2006

Compilation of news about the Cerro Rico mines, in Spanish

'Bolivia's Cerro Rico mines killed my husband. Now they want my son', The Guardian, 24/06/2014

City of Potosí (Plurinational State of Bolivia) added to List of World Heritage in Danger, UNESCO, 17/06/2014

Cooperativas dejarán Cerro Rico a cambio de 2.500 has, 24/11/2014

Comibol dará 13 áreas mineras a 17 cooperativas del Cerro Rico, La Razon, 08/04/2014

Desechos mineros ingresan a la ciudad de Potosi, OCMAL, 24/08/2015

Other documents

Miners at Cerro Rico, Bolivia Sociery of Economic Geologists

View over the Cerro Rico, the "mountain that eats men", Potosi city The Guardian

Meta information

Contributor:Lucie Greyl
Last update08/02/2016



Miners at Cerro Rico, Bolivia

Sociery of Economic Geologists

View over the Cerro Rico, the "mountain that eats men", Potosi city

The Guardian