Situated at 4,090 meters above sea level, Potosí is the highest habitable city in the world. Places like these are the ones that attracted ever more Europeans to the continent after the conquista. The conquerors were obsessed with the idea of finding precious metals. And in Potosí, they found just that: an incredible reserve of silver.
The place triggered the Spanish expression “vale un Potosí” – it’s worth a Potosí – which refers to something that is very valuable. As a matter of fact, I first heard about the city when a Spanish friend of mine told me “you are a Potosí” which, once it was explained to me, I found very flattering indeed. In French, you have the expression “c’est pas le Pérou” – it’s not Peru. Although mostly used in the negative form, referring to something that isn’t worth much, the origin is the same, as Potosí originally was part of Upper Peru, a region of the Viceroyalty of Peru. Or how history shapes languages.
Spain exploited the Cerro Rico massively but, as a paradox, the extracted silver didn’t really benefit the country. The Spanish crown squandered the countless resources it brought back from the New Continent in splendour and luxurious products from other European countries, neglecting its own local production. In the end, England and The Netherlands, more than Spain, benefitted from the mine and were able to build their development based on the exploitation of the mountain… and the hard labour of the local population, goes without saying. An outrageous number of Indians died because of breathing problems or got trapped in the mountain due to crumbling. A saying goes that the quantity of silver extracted from the Cerro Rico would allow to build a bridge from Potosí all over to the Iberian Peninsula… but that you could do exactly the same with the bones of the mine workers who lost their lives due to the greed of an unknown civilization.
Potosí is the best known example of how the western world has plundered the continent without any regard neither for the environment nor for the people living there. But sadly enough, it is only the top of the iceberg.
Of course, the city itself grew with the mine. Exploitation started in 1545 and the extraction of silver didn’t diminish before 1800. After that, tin took over as another natural material ripped off the mountain. Today, after nearly 500 years of continuous excavations, the mine is still being exploited but its veins are running dry. Apparently, within less than 5 years, it will be impossible to get any revenue out of it. And those who do today only get there through arduous work in extremely poor and precarious conditions.