Bolivia´s child miners

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Desperate poverty and societal problems in Bolivia’s central highlands mean children as young as seven are working underground, despite mining being an illegal occupation for under-18s. NGOs have established a programme to try and reduce child labour, but political instability and Bolivia’s lack of budget are barriers to long-term change.

Eight-year-old Javier* works seven hour days in a Bolivian mine for the equivalent of seven and a half Rand a shift. Emerging from the darkness the tiny boy, dressed in a filthy tracksuit, huge rubber boots and an orange hard hat, described how for the last year, often working alone, scared of ghosts, the dark and loud noises, he has cleared debris from the tunnels.
“My father is bad, he drinks all the money and my mother cries every day. I go to school for two hours in the afternoon. I don’t like the mine. The job is good to get the money,” he said as he crammed the food we had brought with us into his mouth.
When Bernidino’s father died in a mine, before working for long enough to be eligible for compensation and a pension, the then 12-year-old and oldest son took his place. After two years of working in Cerro Rico ‘Rich Hill’ outside Potosi, the world’s highest city, Bernidino looks ancient. “I have two brothers and one sister. They need the money to help them. I spent six years at school and I want to become a guide,” he said.
It is illegal for under-18s to work in Bolivia’s mines, and those that do have a life expectancy of between 28 and 33 years. Silicosis (non-reversible lung disease caused by exposure to dust from silica crystals) is a major killer, although cave-ins in the poorly maintained tunnels also exact a high toll.
Desperate poverty in Bolivia’s central highlands, where few industries exist, and a rise in world mineral prices are driving more children underground and for longer periods of time. Former miners estimate 9,000 people work in Cerro Rico’s mines in conditions that have barely changed since colonial times and 1,000 of these are children, with their number doubling during school holidays.
Landlocked Bolivia, listed as South America’s poorest country at last year’s IMF statement to donors’ meeting, is a major producer of tin. In the country’s 1980’s economic crisis its tin market collapsed with the loss of more than 20,000 jobs, contributing to poverty in the mining districts and causing many small groups to have to scrape a living in shafts abandoned by a state-owned company. These tunnels often haven’t been maintained for two decades and output has now increased. Gains have been made without technological advancement, and are instead due to a larger workforce toiling in the lethal conditions.
Potosi, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, was founded in the 16th Century after the discovery of silver in Cerro Rico. Its silver veins underwrote the Spanish economy for two centuries as millions of African and indigenous slaves died on the hill. Potosi’s first coat of arms described it as ‘The treasure of the world’ and by the end of the 18th Century it was the largest and wealthiest city in Latin America. With silver veins depleting and a dip in its price, recent demand has been for tin, lead and zinc.
On the rust-coloured mountain criss-crossed with vehicle tracks, miners with rasping coughs slump on the ground coughing up phlegm. Days after spending time underground your nose is still bleeding and throat raw from the dust and arsenic fumes.
In the entrances of larger mines hand carts loaded with a tonne of ore thunder out of the mountain with their operators riding on the back. If you hear one approaching in a section of tunnel where the walls are sheer all you can do is turn and run, bent double and gasping in the thin air, along the waterlogged passageway until you find a gap to climb into.
Air escaping from oxygen pipes shrieks and deeper inside the mine there is a scraping of shovels and crashing as buckets are dropped between levels to be filled with rock. Where pneumatic drills are used without water to stop material being kicked up a smokescreen of dust billows into the tunnels.
To descend between levels involves sliding on your back, feet planted in the dust and hands gripping the ceiling. Asbestos shards spike through the low tunnels and where arsenic is exposed the temperature and humidity soar.
Some miners work alone, taking the risk of not being discovered in the event of an accident. Most work without masks, their cheeks bulging with coca leaves, chewed to numb the senses (many anaesthetics are derivatives). The leaves, which cost the equivalent of less than four Rand a bag and the use of which was encouraged among labourers by the conquistadors, improve stamina with large doses of iron, calcium and vitamin A, and stave off hunger. The toxic fumes and dust make it impossible to eat proper food underground.
Living conditions outside the mines, where human waste and garbage mix with the toxic dust, contribute to high instances of respiratory diseases. The altitude of Cerro Rico, which at 4,798 towers to within 10 metres of the summit of western-Europe’s highest peak Mont Blanc, adds to the miners’ difficulties as temperatures can plummet to minus 20 degrees centigrade on its exposed slopes.
In 1550, in a report for the Council of Indians, Cerro Rico was described as ‘a mouth of hell’, that annually consumed thousands of lives. The International Labour Organisation estimated that almost one per cent of Bolivia’s small-scale mining workforce dies in accidents each year, with five times as many suffering serious injuries. However, many incidents go unreported, and work-related health hazards coupled with miners’ families living in sub-standard conditions without access to adequate healthcare, are the main killers.
A further indicator of the appalling working environment is that many miners believe Cerro Rico is inhabited by a devil, known as El Tio (Uncle). Every mine has at least one shrine of a horned, red El Tio where miners leave offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and often a llama foetus. “More llama blood means less miner blood,” say the workers in the hope of appeasing the devil for taking ‘its’ minerals so they do not pay with their lives. The devils’ mouths are crammed with filter cigarettes, as El Tio is said to be European. Green eyes, beards and moustaches are further references to the conquistadors.
Adult miners on Cerro Rico have a life expectancy of 44 years. Those suffering from silicosis often have to sleep sitting up because of the pain in their lungs, and have a high risk of contracting tuberculosis. Alcoholism has become a major problem, as people struggle to cope with the miserable living conditions and cold.
In a survey more than 90 per cent of miners stated they only worked underground because there were no other jobs available. Wages for adult miners, at the equivalent of 665 Rand a month, are around double the area average. An IMF report states that unemployment in Bolivia is rising and about half the labour force is under-employed. More than a third of the population live in extreme poverty.
Tomas Flores lives with his wife and four children in a filthy one room shack at a mine entrance, with one single bed, piles of blankets on the floor and boards over the window. Propped in the corner is a single burner stove where his wife earns extra money cooking for the miners, while stacked up towards the ceiling are crates of beer and 96 per cent proof sugarcane alcohol already sold as it was a Friday, the day of celebration.
Aged 40, Tomas plans to retire soon to work as a security guard. “Mining is very bad for our lungs, especially when the pneumatic drill is used with no water to drill dynamite holes. Within five minutes everything is full of dust. The arsenic is destroying my lungs. Sometimes to breathe is a little bit hard for me,” he explained.
At the moment he works eight hour shifts, six days a week, to keep his children in school: “I am working now more than before as the price is okay on the mineral markets, so I am taking advantage. Who knows next month, next day, what the price will be.
“My nephew died when he was 18, two years ago. It happened in a mine; a big rock fell on him. My oldest son, Julian, is 13-years-old and at school. I want him to go to university. I want my children to be professionals. I don’t want to see them work in the mines.”
His friend Elisio, known as ‘Oso’ (bear), was sitting on a crate, wrapped up against the cold in layers of clothes and a woollen hat, downing the 96 per cent alcohol from an old plastic water bottle. “In one, or maybe two years, I will stop mining and the Government will pay me a small pension because more than 50 per cent of my lungs will be diseased. I am very sick. Only two days ago I was in hospital and the doctor showed me an X-Ray of my lungs – I could see the holes in them. Sometimes I can’t sleep because of the pain,” said the 42-year-old, who has mined for 25 years.
Women traditionally do not work in Cerro Rico because it is believed Pachamama, (Earth Mother), would be jealous of their presence, although many work through scraps of rocks outside, still exposed to lethal dust as these tail endings are crushed. During the Chaco War large numbers of women took over mining jobs when the region’s men had to fight a territorial dispute over an oil-rich swampy region with Paraguay in the 1930s.
If a husband dies who has not worked for long enough for his family to receive compensation his wife sometimes takes his place in the mine in order to support the family. Wearing traditional mourning dress of a black tunic and skirt Felica hauls wheelbarrow loads of ore out of a mine while her two children attend school. She explained: “One year ago my husband died in an avalanche of stones. I was a housewife before, but there was no compensation as my husband was only an assistant.”
Potosi has become another stop on the backpacker trail with an estimated 400 to 500 visitors a month donning waterproofs and hard hats, buying gifts for the workers of coca leaves, alcohol and dynamite from the miners’ market, and heading for Cerro Rico for a trip underground with an ex-miner. Most visits are to larger operations which do not routinely take on child labour, or at least keep their ‘young helpers’ well hidden.
Juan, who guided me on one visit and had stopped working underground after falling into an open shaft while carrying a 40 kg load, said the only way to make the mines safer would be to make Cerro Rico open-cast, the method used on other sites by the Incas.
Children tend to work in the smaller mines, where they are less likely to be found by the authorities and in conditions where they often have to crawl on their stomachs through tiny tunnels to reach the depleted mineral veins. Roberto, another guide, was surprised when a small group of child workers we came across were able to show off all of their fingers.
The child miners said that despite the health risks their main concern was the need to earn money. Juan, a 14-year-old who has worked in the mines since he was 11, said: “There is no money for me to go to school. I have five brothers and two sisters. I work for seven or eight hours a day and every week I do a 24 hour shift because the prices are good at the moment.”
Asked what sort of job he would like to do, Juan replied: “I will work in the mines until I die. The mines are like this, and this is the only job in Potosi. My goal is to get married when I am 18 or 20 and have a family.”
His 15 year old friend Mario, who has worked in the mines for three years, and last year became the family’s main earner when his father died, described how every morning he says goodbye to his mother, brothers and young sisters, because he never knows whether he will return alive.
Some of the children we spoke to attended evening classes after finishing gruelling shifts in the mines although others had left school before learning Spanish and spoke only Quechua, hindering their chances of employment in anything but manual labour.
CARE Bolivia, in collaboration with a local NGO Centro de Promocion Minera (Cepromin), has set up an educational programme to improve schooling standards to help prepare children for non-mining occupations. The programme also tries to increase mining families understanding of the effects of child labour and the value of education. A report by CARE stated: “Mine work prevents children from enrolling and staying in school, and hinders learning activities for those who do attend. Students are frequently absent, arrive to class tired and are often sick. Since schools are often overcrowded and poorly equipped, student desertion begins early on in primary grades. For those who do stay in school, the quality of basic education is low. Teachers lack skills, support or motivation to cause learning, and parents perceive few benefits to be gained from sending their children to school.”
Problems include the transient nature of the mining population making school populations fluid and difficult to evaluate, Bolivia’s lack of resources to tackle social issues threatening the project’s long-term viability and political instability affecting policy consistency.
CARE Bolivia’s educational programme manager, Rouzena Zuazo, stressed the need for a multi-agency approach to tackle the problem of child miners. She stated: “This is the worst problem of child exploitation. It has a lot to do with other issues such as poverty, indigenous migration and mining culture. Therefore, it is necessary to add efforts of government institutions and civil society to come with deeper and broader intervention.”

*name has been changed