The history of Potosí, Bolivia, is a long and sad tale. The city rests at a lofty 13,420 feet, making it one of the highest cities in the world. Founded in 1546 as a mining town, the population soon exploded to more than 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world. This population boom was caused by the discovery of large amounts of silver in the Cerro Ricco, a mountain overlooking the town. Between 1556 and 1783, more than 41,000 metric tons of silver we mined from the mountain, most of which was exported back to Spain. Some of the silver remained in the city of Potosí, which became one of the top three richest cities in the world. But soon the silver began to run out and around 1800 the population started a strong decline.
Silver and minerals are still mined in the mountain today. In dusty and dangerous mines, thousands of local people continue to search for the precious metal. The workers in the mines range from young children (less than 10 years old), to old men, although the average life span for a life-long miner is only 35-40 years. Since the opening of the mine, over 8 million miners have lost their lives inside the mines. This number reflects only the people who have died of accidents in the mines, not those whose lungs fail after years of breathing the toxic dust (almost every life-long miner). Most of those who died where either of the indigenous population, or imported African slaves.
With the mines still operating and no less dangerous than ever, Potosí is a very sad and depressing city. With a lack of other jobs in the area, children who have lost their fathers in the mine are forced to enter it themselves at a very young age, with little hope of escaping. Next time you buy something made of silver, think about where it comes from because it might have come to your finger through the hard and dangerous work of Bolivian children.
So, how many lives is an ounce of silver worth?
For more info, we suggest the amazing documentary “The Devil’s Miner.”