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In Bolivia, silver mountain at risk of collapse

POTOSI, Bolivia -- Cerro Rico, the fabled peak towering over the Bolivian city of Potosi that supplied silver to fund Spain's colonial empire, is at risk of collapse from overmining, putting thousands of workers in jeopardy.

Potosi, which earned UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987, was seen as the world's largest industrial complex in the 16th century thanks to its massive deposits of silver and tin.

But last month, the U.N. cultural body placed the colonial city, perched high in the Andes, and the increasingly unstable Cerro Rico on its World Heritage in Danger list due to “uncontrolled mining operations.”

A symbol of the colonization of Latin America and the exploitation of its rich resources, Potosi and its 200,000 residents now largely live in poverty in the shadow of Cerro Rico — “Rich Hill.”

So despite the dire warnings, no one imagines that silver extraction — basically the region's only source of revenue — could eventually halt altogether, leaving wary officials in a bit of a quandary.

“We are not going to leave this place, because it's the source of food for our families,” says Carlos Mamami, who leads one of the privately run cooperatives that bring together Potosi's 12,000 miners.

“Where would we go?”

A 'mountain that eats men'

Cerro Rico has been mined continuously ever since a Quechua Indian named Diego Huallpa accidentally discovered silver there in 1545, early in the era of Spanish colonial rule.

Silver from Spain's New World mines, especially Cerro Rico, was turned into coins and used to fund Madrid's empire for centuries. The coins remained a global currency well after Bolivia's independence in 1825.

Today, pierced by more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) of tunnels, Cerro Rico is something of a giant ant hill.

So much silver has been extracted that experts believe the mountain, currently 4,787 meters (15,700 feet) tall, has lost 400 meters in height over the years.

Miners still work as they did centuries ago, with picks and shovels, and in difficult conditions, the president of the society of Potosi engineers, Ronald Fajardo, told AFP.

About 5,000 tons of soil, silver and tin are extracted every day.

Each year, about 30 miners die there, according to official figures. But because of the transient and informal labor system, the death toll could actually be much higher.

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View of Potosi's Cerro Rico, Bolivia, which is in danger of collapse due to mining operations in the area, on June 24. (AFP)

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