Potosi: the collapse

Martin Mantxo (aplaneta.org)
Ilustration: printing of Potosí by Theodor de Bry (1528 -1598)

(Euskera) (Castellano)

A piece of news has gone unnoticed by the public. Or it has not been given the importance it deserves. Above all, because it is indicative of the alarming situation in which we find ourselves, in which the Planet is in many respects and because of its symbolic dimension.

On 25 September, I learned that a week earlier, on the 17th, Cerro Rico de Potosí collapsed after five hundred years of silver mining. This disaster, despite having been announced for years, is the representation of a similar and overlooked collapse of mining, silver and other precious minerals, as well as the social and environmental collapse that accompanies such activities. On a more general and planetary level, it represents the collapse to which this civilisation is heading, the collapse, also because of what it represents: the end of resources and environmental, social and economic collapse. Another simile: like Potosí, despite being announced by different bodies and for a long time, this collapse is ignored.

The Cerro Rico de Potosí was emblematic for its mining activity, the extraction of silver which earned it the coining of the Spanish phrase «Vale un Potosí» (worth one Potosí) to indicate wealth. That is why Cerro Rico’s silhouette appears on the Bolivian coat of arms too. Potosí is the history of the conquest and colonisation of America, of what moved it: the search for wealth, especially for gold and silver. This desire is reflected in the toponymy they left behind: Ciudad de la Plata, Río de la Plata or Argentina itself, which corresponds to its scientific name (argentium – Ag).

Potosí symbolises the Spanish greed that began its exploitation in 1545, because the Incas held the mountain sacred and were fearful of the mountain’s soul and its rumblings. According to some, the name comes from the word «Potosí» or roar (others associate it with the roar of mining explosions), although it is also associated with «Orcco Poctocchi» or hill that sprouts silver. On 17 September 2022 it roared again and demanded that we stop screwing around and stop exploiting with no future prospects.

I received this information from participating in a group with people who are environmentally aware in the Bolivian Amazon. For better or for worse, I participate above all because they feel powerless in the face of such a situation, the disaster that extractivism causes in that territory, which I understand is aggravated because the current government is in theory a progressive and indigenist government, so that its clearly extractivist policy is hidden or justified.

Potosi and the silver peak

Potosí involves devotion to a resource, in this case a mineral resource, which is extracted and exploited without taking into account the end of this same resource. The collapse of Cerro Rico de Potosí is paradigmatic: it shows us that the extraction of minerals has an end, they are finite resources. Nothing could also express what the end of resources means like the collapse of Cerro Potosí. The peaks, the point at which a natural resource begins to decline, is something we have been hearing about for a long time in terms of fossil fuels, oil, gas, coal. But we still don’t pay much attention to it, as if it didn’t concern us, when we are faced with such atrocious and destructive and violent techniques such as fracking (recently approved in the United Kingdom and also proposed here) or tar sands, or deep sea extraction, which are simply due to the reduction of this resource.

Silver’s decline (from seekingalpha.com)

This decline occurs in all other resources. It is called the Peak All, and silver and gold are no exception. It seems that silver already peaked in 2015, although it also went into crisis in 1990 and 2001. After reaching that peak, the decline begins, and from the decline only the collapse remains. Potosí is an eloquent example of this collapse.

Another piece of evidence: in 2018, more than one billion ounces of silver were being consumed (how do you go about consuming silver? What is it used for?) per year, while only 800 million ounces were being produced. This decline has continued in the years since.

The case of gold is very similar to that of silver, with existing reserves depleting and new discoveries of new deposits diminishing as well. The gold industry itself confirmed its peak four years ago. In 2018 the CEO of one of the major gold miners, Goldcorp, assumed: «All the major deposits have been discovered (…) we have found everything». 2019 saw the first annual decline in production, 3,531 tonnes. Even so, the industry estimates that 20% remains to be exploited. That is also a lot, and above all, in the face of disasters like the one in Potosí, confirming the lack of perspective and environmental sensitivity and the level of greed of the mining companies, it seems to us that there is still a lot of destruction and damage to communities to be done.

But silver, apart from being considered a precious mineral and its use in jewellery and some other things (mobiles, etc.), has, like gold, a monetary value: our economy is governed by them. It is not in vain that coins were made in this material because of the real value it had. And it was not for nothing that the Spanish mint existed in the city of Potosí itself. Therefore, the economy based on two minerals, now in decline, is affected by this. That is why it is also in their interest to look for other patrons. The collapse of Cerro Rico portends a capitalist collapse of which we have many indicators.

The announced and ignored collapse of Cerro Rico

Reading in the media we see that this collapse had been announced for many years. In 2010 a collapse had already occurred and in 2011 the National Geological and Mining Technical Service (Sergeotecmin) published a report in which it warned that «the collapse of the summit of Cerro Rico de Potosí occurs in a zone of intersection of three mineralised fault systems, the rock mass presents a greater persistence and intersection of several families of discontinuities»1 .

I read in 2015 that it is «on the verge of collapse due to the continuous and brutal mining over the last 500 years»2 . Five years ago, in 2017, there were already fears that it would happen, and yet mining has continued since then, not least because silver is such a precious commodity.

Only two months ago (July 2022), also in Potosí, a tailings deposit collapsed, contaminating four rivers with mud and mining waste, and then the Pilcomayo River, and the Paraná River, of which it is a tributary, flowing into the Río de la Plata3 . What a parallel with Mariana and Brumadinho!

The threat has already been denounced by the former Bolivian mining minister Epifanio Mamani himself, who told France24 last year that «If there is no immediate solution, a catastrophe could occur in which many mining operators could die». This was also denounced in the same media by the deputy editor of the newspaper El Potosí, Juan José Toro, who was attacked in 2020 by miners when he tried to climb to the top with a heritage defence commission. At that time they were already reporting 19 existing collapses with the risk of merging. It seems that nobody listened to them. Or they preferred to continue as such, some pocketing millions, others putting a piece of bread in their mouths, until the tragedy was consummated.

In 2017 there was a collapse that caused the death of two miners. At that time, a relocation of miners to other mines in Bolivia was already proposed due to the threat of collapse in the mine, for which 300 miners signed up4 (out of a collective of 20,000 miners).

Attack against El Potosí paper’s editor Juan José Toro,.

 The workers’ desire to be relocated coincided with their fear of insecurity. But what prevailed was the need to continue working, to earn their bread in this, one of the few ways they had. Wages of 20 dollars a day for extracting loads of rock and earth with these doses of risk and accidents. And then there are the palliris or women who scavenge through the mine waste, who get from 143 to 430 dollars for three months of work!5 They are today’s slaves like many other people who sustain this brutal capitalist system, direct descendants of the Mitans. The mita was the system of slavery imposed by the Spanish crown to exploit the mines, but in reality it was a Quechua word («mit’a») that originally meant «communal work». Everything was appropriated, everything was corrupted.

The collapse of Potosi also foreshadows the blind race of capitalism towards destruction, because other objectives (wages, profits, resources) are always put before security, welfare or the environment.

A decline that dates back to colonial times

Cerro Rico de Potosí was also known as the «mountain that ate men», which, taking into account the Inca legend, we can conclude that it was true to the letter. Eduardo Galeano 6dedicated lines to Potosí, because of the aforementioned relevance. He said that a bridge could be built from Potosí to Europe with the silver extracted from Cerro Rico. But also another one from Potosí to Europe with the bones of the people who died inside the mountain. It is estimated that eight million African and indigenous workers died in the mines of Potosí during the Spanish colony.

City of Potosi underneath Cerro Rico.

As early as 1971, Galeano spoke of the devastation caused by mining in Potosí, and its best witness was Huakajchi, or «mountain that wept». He already spoke of its «decadence» and «the exhaustion of the silver», which «had been interpreted as a divine punishment» (page 52) (Ah, the civilised also develop unscientific opinions!). Because the extraction of silver reached its peak around the year 1650 (100 years of production), at which time the veins began to run out (peak of the Potosi silver). And yet, how little perspective we have had and how we have continued to try to iron out the tiniest particle without stopping to consider its consequences.

Galeano also recounts that by 1825, the Indians were suffering so much that they begged the hill to exhaust its veins. «And at last the hill cursed greed»7 . And at last the hill cursed greed? There is no end to it, now they will exploit the waste or open an open-pit mine.

Galeano also says that Potosí was «the centre of colonial American life», as the other economies revolved around it. Potosí was a paradigm of colonialism based on slavery, to enrich a colony that became hegemonic and whose power remains to this day. It is estimated that Potosí was the source of 50% of all the silver mined in the world at the end of the 16th century, worth 50 billion dollars. Meanwhile Bolivia became one of the poorest countries in the world, a condition partly alleviated by recent governments.

Cover of the book «The Face of Death, Megamining and globalisation in the 16th and 17th centuries» by Hermes Tovar Pinzón..

Government continues extractivism despite clear risks

Juan José Toro also denounced the inaction of the state, which «does nothing» to stop the exploitation of Potosí, which was also illegal because it exceeded the 4,400 metre level. How sad, however, that these governments have to resort to the same methods, to over-exploit resources without foreseeing their end, to over-exploit resources with so many environmental and human impacts. Let us remember that the government of Evo Morales, an indigenous government, like the Mitanos, governed from 2006 to 2019. For this government, the exploitation of the country’s mineral resources has been the mainstay of its economy, depending heavily on gas, which it exports for the most part, and even initiating others such as lithium or now oil in the Tariquía Reserve (Tarija).

Comibol’s (Corporación Minera de Bolivia) project.

In 2014 the government passed a mining law that changed the rules for nature reserves, giving more mining capacity to companies. It also changed the law to favour mining companies by criminalising opposition to them.

In 2017, the year of landslides and deaths at Cerro Rico de Potosí, the government presented «Potosí de plata«, according to them an Integral and Sustainable Mining Programme for Cerro Rico de Potosí8 . What sustainability is possible in this exploitation? This programme included:

  1. «the development of a modern mine in the oxidised part of Cerro Rico».

  2. «the construction of a gallery (ramp) for the dewatering of the waterlogged workings of the old COMIBOL mine and access to the deep reserves of tin, zinc and silver at Cerro Rico».

  3. «Potosinean silverware», or the development of a local silver industry.

Ilustración por M. Mantxo

We understand the complexity of today’s capitalism, of globalisation, of neoliberalism; of the difficulties of dispossessed economies, of plundered peoples, to develop alternatives. But are there no other possibilities than to continue extracting the resources on which so much oppression, so much environmental deterioration, so much economic dependence is based? And to do it in the same way (except in this case the development of some local industry)? And to do it until collapse? Surely this collapse is also synonymous with the consequences of following the same capitalist policies when you call yourself progressive or revolutionary.

Collapse of Cerro Rico of Potosí.

Potosí or the imposition of civilisation on the indigenous cosmovision

This disaster also highlights the indigenous-civilised dichotomy, and its argument that the indigenous need to be integrated and assume Western culture in order to improve their human condition. In this way of seeing things, the indigenous mentality is understood as wrong and the civilised as right. The indigenous bond with Nature, their way of interpreting it, their rites and myths are seen as incorrect. But this fact also shows us that the indigenous mentality was right and the civilised one was wrong. They did not cause the disaster. The civilised ignored the indigenous alarm and caused exhaustion and collapse, and along the way a lot of pain and death.

It is the dichotomy faced throughout Abya Yala and the Planet. It is the dichotomy faced by the Wixárita (Huichol) people in Jalisco, Mexico, from their sustainability and ancestral culture in the face of the desire to extract silver and other minerals from their sacred hill of El Quemado or Wirikuta 9. The Canadian company First Majestic wants to exploit the hill where, according to them, the sun and their culture were created, and where they have the altar where they make their offerings. But they are also concerned about the impact on the environment, on their ecosystem, and above all on the water on which everything depends. So far the Wixárita people have been successful in their resistance but they also have a death toll from their opposition. In itself, we can find no better example of what this dichotomy entails than the very Pronouncement for the Renewal of the World that they made last April from the same Quemado hill.

Banner from the Wixarika Regional Council: «Wirikuta is life. No to the mine!»

The end of Potosi replicated in open-pit mining in Abya Yala

The end of silver in Cerro Rico Potosí has been evident for a long time. Now the silver that comes out of this mine no longer comes from that vein that was the largest in the world, but now appears in small quantities, many of them collected by hand by people who have the trade of searching for these stones in order to make the most of them. This type of exploitation is what the extraction of many minerals worldwide has been reduced to nowadays. Therefore, despite the evidence, capitalism tries to avoid the end of resources.

If this silver was mined in this way, it was because of its quantity of ore, but now in the Andes itself, in the same mountains, the way it is mined is to tear out all the rock, pulverising it in order to extract microscopic particles of these different materials. These forms of extraction, despite their sophistication, are in fact evidence of the end of this mineral. However, we continue to turn a deaf ear, a blind eye to this evidence and try to extract more and more, destroying the hills, destroying the ecosystems, destroying the villages, sinking the hills.

Tailings from minining in Potosí, and alleged retaining wall.

The same tragedy that occurred in Potosí is the same tragedy that communities along the Andes mountains are suffering, because if in this case negligence and abusive exploitation caused the disappearance of a mountain, today’s open-pit mining does it from the beginning of its activity. These are projects like MARA (Minera Agua Rica Alumbrera), or projects like Tambogrande, or Pascua Lama, Yanacocha, El Tambor, or Conga, or ….. (For more information see the page of the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America (OCMAL)10 .

The plundering of Potosí under the Spanish crown and subsequent governments is reflected today in thousands of other foreign exploitations in Abya Yala. They take advantage of the economic conditions and their environmental and social impact, because what governments receive for such exploitation and resources is not enough to cover the environmental and health damage they cause. However, the governments of countries with precarious economies still see it as a form of income (without ignoring the particular interests that many politicians may have in these projects): In 2016 the Mexican government granted 558 new titles to extract gold and silver, corresponding to 1.1 million hectares! In Neuquén (Argentina) the mining exploitation of Andacollo was granted to the Australian company Trident Southern Explorations for crumbs. The collapse of Cerro Rico de Potosí is a concrete expression of this plundering, the wealth they export and the misery they leave behind: the (economic, economic, social) collapse.

Predicted impacts from Agua Rica (MARA) mining project in Argentina.

Like the Canadian First Majestic Silver Corp, owner of the silver mine La Encantada and the silver and gold mines of San Dimas and Santa Elena in Mexico: MSC owes the Mexican treasury 534 million dollars. In addition to benefiting from these favourable conditions, mining companies and silver extractors also try to pay less, often bribing politicians to do so, such as the Canadian company Almaden Minerals in Mexico or Pan American Silver in Argentina, owner of the Navidad project in Chubut. In addition to paying bribes, the latter also invests in agencies to produce information favourable to its activity.

Potosí is the story of many other silver mines being depleted and leaving a great legacy of environmental and social misery. It is the story of Cerro de San Pedro (San Luis Valley, Mexico), an open-pit silver and gold mine closed in 2016, after a decade of exploitation. It belonged to Minera San Xavier, owned by the Canadian company New Gold, which also left behind countless lawsuits and complaints for devastating the area and consuming the valley’s water.

The silver and lead mine in Cerro de Pasco (Peru), also in the Andes, is 400 metres deep and threatens to engulf the town of 70,000 inhabitants. The contamination of its inhabitants and their children is the other consequence. And so on.

Mining companies pollute the water with heavy minerals from leaching (the washing of the rock to extract silver and other minerals), while at the same time consuming the water needed by the communities and on which their economies depend in most cases. This has been denounced in Peru by the Platform created exclusively by people affected by heavy minerals in different communities and provinces. This was also the opinion of the Popular Community Trial Against the State and Mining Companies held in 2018 by communities affected by mining projects in Oaxaca (Mexico): «Neither gold nor silver, mining kills».

To do so, they also bypass even the environmental protection systems in place, as in the case of the Patagonia National Park in Chile, which was handed over by the Piñera government to the Australian mining company Equus Mining (Southern Gold) for the extraction of gold and silver.

We will always have the moon

Faced with this depletion of resources and therefore of profits, companies could opt for different options, but their option is always to continue extracting no matter how many Potosis collapse. Just as some are proposing to colonise and seek solutions on other planets in the face of climate and environmental emergencies, perhaps that is the solution for silver. Only if its price rises so high that it becomes profitable to transport. NASA already announced the existence of silver and gold on the very moon! Trump issued an order before he left the government encouraging citizens to mine the moon. They predicted that mining could begin in 2025 (I don’t know what predictions they are basing this on or how much they are talking about)! Until we mine the whole moon. Until it falls on us.

llustration of NASA astronauts on the lunar South Pole. Credit: NASA

5Cerro Rico de Potosí and its latent threat to thousands of Bolivian miners https://www.france24.com/es/américa-latina/20210928-cerro-rico-potosí-bolivia-amenaza-minería-desastre

6See Open Veins of Latin America. Eduardo Galeano, Siglo Veintiuno 1971. Esplendores del Potosí: el ciclo de la plata Pag 29, Ruinas del Potosí: el ciclo de la plata Pag 47,


7Eduardo Galeano, Siglo Veintiuno 1984. Memories of Fire – II Faces and Masks. Page 157.

8Coy 352 – «Potosi de plata» (8 November 2017) https://fundacion-milenio.org/coy-352-potosi-plata

9Included by UNESCO in the World Network of Sacred Natural Sites.

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