POTOSÍ, Bolivia — The silver in this mountain helped finance the Spanish empire. It created vast fortunes for some and misery for many more. It fueled the early growth of European capitalism, setting the stage for the modern era.
But now, after centuries of hauling out its riches, miners working near the peak have clawed away so much of the interior of the mountain that it is caving in from the top down.
At the peak of this historic mountain — known as Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill, standing at more than 15,600 feet — a giant sinkhole has opened, a jagged mouth in the blood-red rock. In June, Unesco warned that the mountain, depicted at the center of Bolivia’s flag, faced a critical risk of collapse at its summit.
“Since the internal structure of the upper part of the Cerro Rico is severely weakened due to continuous exploitation,” it said, “there is a significant risk that miners could die from collapses inside the tunnels.”
In July, the government said that it planned to shut down mines above 14,435 feet, where about 1,500 miners work in conditions that can range from rudimentary to brutal. Many thousands of miners work in mines farther down the mountain.
“It is an emergency where we have to act quickly,” said Marcelino Quispe, the president of the government-run Bolivian Mining Corporation, known as Comibol. It grants concessions to the private companies known as cooperatives that work on the mountain, and it helped pay for a failed effort last year to stabilize and cap the sinkhole.
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