MAC: Mines and Communities

Bolivian Government Bars Mining on Peak of Cerro Rico

Published by MAC on 2009-10-26
Source: Reuters, EFE

Bolivia fears collapse at Potosi, limits mining


20 October 2009

LA PAZ - Bolivia's government has banned thousands of independent miners and U.S.-based Coeur d'Alene from mining silver in part of the legendary Cerro Rico mine because officials fear it could collapse, the deputy mines minister said on Tuesday.

Freelance miners, who scrape out a living by extracting mineral ore from the mountain, are likely to protest against the ban, while Coeur d'Alene said the decision would not affect its operations.

Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), which lies in the central Potosi region, has come to symbolize a colonial past where thousands of Inca slaves died mining silver for the Spanish conquistadors.

Five centuries of mining have turned the mountain's cone into a sponge of flimsy tunnels that threaten to cave in, prompting officials to ban mining at the peak.

"The board of directors of (state-run mining company) Comibol has issued a resolution suspending mining operations above 14,400 feet (4,400 meters) to preserve the morphological shape of the Cerro Rico," Deputy Mining Minister Gerardo Coro told reporters.

According to the government, there are nearly 200 mine shafts into the mountain, which rises to some 15,400 feet (4,700 meters).

The ban will remain in place for the six months the government says it needs to assess the risk of collapse, but it could be extended depending on the study's findings.

A spokesman for U.S. miner Coeur d'Alene, which operates the San Bartolome mine at Cerro Rico, said the government measure would not affect its operations. "The recent public notice by COMIBOL regarding a request to (Coeur's local subsidiary) Manquiri and the cooperatives to temporarily halt mining above 4,400 meters on Cerro Rico does not impact our current operations," the spokesman said.

San Bartolome is the world's largest pure silver mine. In 2009, its first full year of production, it is expected to produce approximately 9 million ounces of silver. It mainly extracts silver ore from gravel deposits at the base of the mountain.

Thousands of ill-equipped, independent miners extract ore from Cerro Rico every day, and conditions have not changed much since Spanish conquerors brought slaves there 500 years ago.

Cerro Rico's vast reserves turned the nearby city of Potosi into the most populous in the Americas in the 17th century, with some 120,000 inhabitants -- more than London, Paris or Madrid at the time.

(Reporting by Carlos Quiroga; Writing by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Christian Wiessner)

Bolivian Government Bars Mining on Peak of Cerro Rico


21 October 2009

LA PAZ – The Bolivian government ordered a U.S.-owned mining company to cease operations on the summit of Cerro Rico, responding to protests by residents of the nearby city of Potosi that the activity was damaging the distinctive conical shape of “rich mountain,” which has been producing silver for 464 years.

Deputy Mining Minister Gerardo Coro told Efe that Empresa Minera Manquiri S.A., a subsidiary of Coeur d’Alene Mines Corporation, has already begun removing its equipment from Cerro Rico’s peak, which rises 4,702 meters (15,416 feet) above sea level.

Manquiri workers were on the summit to collect thousands of tons of surface residues rich in silver. From now on, Manquiri will not be allowed to operate above 4,400 meters, a restriction long observed by the roughly 30 mining cooperatives active on Cerro Rico.

Coro said Manquiri had already completed 97 percent of what it planned to do on the summit and he dismissed fears of a landslide on the storied mountain.

Environmental activists and members of the Potosi Civic Committee organized a general strike Monday to demand that the government revoke Manquiri’s mining concession on Cerro Rico.

The mountain is a national monument and a tourist attraction whose image is part of Bolivia’s coat of arms.

Development of the Cerro deposit began in 1545 and over the centuries millions of Indians and African slaves worked under conditions of forced labor, producing tens of thousands of tons silver for the Spanish Empire. Tin and zinc extracted from the mine became important in more recent times.

Currently, some 10,000 miners – mostly descendants of those initial workers – toil below ground, using dynamite to create tunnels and extracting at least 2,000 tons of mineral-laden earth per day.

Conditions remain brutal, with most of the miners dying of pneumonia in their 40s, and mine drainage takes a devastating toll on the environment, making Potosi one of the world’s most polluted cities.

The chairman of the Potosi Civic Committee, Celestino Condori, said he and others in the city don’t trust Manquiri to stop mining on Cerro’s summit.

He said the only way to ensure the mountain’s preservation is to revoke Manquiri’s concession.

Bolivian engineers have found cave-ins and fractures and recommended that preservation efforts be carried out, although they say there is no danger the mountain will collapse due to the intense mining activity.

They say the collapse of such a mass of solid rock is only possible in the event of a major earthquake, although the mountain does have a total of 90 kilometers (56 miles) of perforations and galleries, according to a recent study of the mine’s structural deterioration.

Those same engineers have determined that Cerro Rico contains almost 1.22 billion tons of mineral wealth, most of it silver.

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