Despite a sinking summit, 15,000 laborers continue to claw at the mines in a Bolivian mountain.
Exploitation runs deep in Potosí, a small city about 330 miles southeast of La Paz, Bolivia. Spanish conquistadors founded it in the 16th century to hunt for treasure in Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), which towers nearby. First mined for silver, Cerro Rico also became famous for its bounty of tin and zinc. Centuries of digging, however, have put the mountain at risk of collapse: In 2015, the Bolivian government started to plug a massive sinkhole at Cerro Rico’s summit that has put miners’ lives in danger since it appeared in 2011. Today, some 15,000 workers — known as peones, or pawns — extract ore at hundreds of sites. Above, a miner arrives for an early-morning shift.
Jobs at Cerro Rico can exact a terrible toll. Mine shafts cave in, injuring or killing those inside. Men who toil underground suffer from silicosis, a scarring of the lungs caused by inhaled dust particles. Belgian photographer Cédric Gerbehaye, who visited Potosí for a project on the disturbing legacy of mining across Latin America, says the industry is destroying the environment alongside human lives. “The adverse effects,” he cautions, “are not only substantial, but also inevitable.”