Gasping for air and drenched in sweat, I crawled my way through dark tunnels, climbed down cramped, claustrophobic holes, and waded through giant puddles of water past unsecured lifting holes with 30m drops. The intense heat and suffocating dust were almost unbearable. Visible asbestos and the constant sound of explosions nearby turned me into a bundle of nerves. Stinging fumes and gas, all at an altitude of 4,678m, gave me a splitting headache. As I tackled this challenge during my Potosi mine tour, I couldn’t help but remind myself of the thousands of men, teenage boys, and even children that have to work in these gruesome conditions and in this airless space every single day.
I went on a Potosi mine tour because I was interested in finding out the kind of conditions Bolivian miners have to work in. I wear jewellery, but when I go to a shop and buy a silver necklace I usually don’t give a lot of thought into how the silver was extracted. Through my work in international development I have been exposed to a lot of social injustice, from violence against women or human rights violations, but as labour rights and child labour in particular are big problems in South America I wanted to find out more about these issues.
Before our group entered the mines we were taken to the miners’ market where we could to buy some presents for the miners we were about to meet. Presents can include anything from coca leaves, 98% alcohol, safety gloves, water or even dynamite. Some of these presents may sound weird but because of the difficulty of physical work at high altitude most miners chew coca leaves all day to repress hunger and keep their energy levels high. A lot of miners also drink very strong alcohol which is of course not very safe, but it probably enables them to cope with the dangerous working conditions better. The miners really appreciate these gifts as they have to buy all of their own tools and these tools are not cheap if you are on a low wage. When I gave a miner a new pair of gloves he promptly discarded his existing ones which were completely ripped to pieces, as were his hands.
8 million deaths
I have visited a former coal mine in Germany before, and while working conditions in that mine were tough as well, it looked like a five star resort compared to the mines in Potosi. When the Spaniards colonised Bolivia they forced the indigenous peoples to work in the mines as slaves under such horrific conditions that the Cerro Rico (the rich hill) also became known as “the mountain that eats men”. Conditions today have barely improved and the miners still have to work with very outdated, simple and often homemade tools.
The mine entry marks the threshold to another world, where El Tío, the devil, demands sacrifices of coca leaves, alcohol and llama blood in return for protection. Locals believe that God can’t protect them that far deep in the mines, as this is the home of the devil, so they pray to him for safety instead.
A lot of miners who actually survive the many accidents, collapses, explosions and poisonous gasses are likely to die of lung disease by the time they reach 35. More worryingly, 470 years of mining have left the mountain so riddled with tunnels and sinkholes that it could completely collapse at any moment. Since 1545 as many as 8 million miners have died either in the mines or as a result of illnesses caused by years of mining.
Despite what a lot of tour operators and mining companies tell you, sadly there are still many children working in the mines. Many do so out of sheer poverty and desperation. A lot of children are orphans who lost their fathers in the mines, and to support the rest of their family and to pay for their school fees, they often have no choice but to tempt the same faith as their fathers. In Bolivia an estimated 1 million children and teenagers are working children, 50% under the age of 14.
I have spoken to a local NGO that deals with child miners, called Amigos de Potosi, who aim to create new possibilities outside of the mines for young miners, adults and their wives by providing them with education and alternative employment options. They told me that it is actually very difficult to tell how many child miners there are these days. Some say dozens, some say hundreds and some say there are no child miners at all. Child labour in mines is illegal in Bolivia, so nobody will tell you the truth even if they know about it, as they risk penalties. Mining is considered one of the worst forms of child labour, but mining corporations continue to employ under-aged miners because they are not prevented from doing so by inspecting governmental institutions according to Amigos de Potosi.
If you would like to find out more about child labour in Bolivia or about child miners in Potosi I highly recommend the following two documentaries: The child labourers of Bolivia and the award winning and heart-breaking film The Devil’s Miner.
Doing the Potosi mine tour was eye-opening and exhausting – both physically and emotionally – but it also left me with a huge respect for the local miners who work tirelessly to support their families in the knowledge that their job will probably kill them one day. If you would like to support local miners financially then eco-friendly mining tours that benefit the miners directly are available from Koala Tours in Potosi. If you would like to help fight child labour in the Potosi mines then you could support local NGOs such as Amigos de Potosi.
Have you been exposed to child labor on your travels and would you do the Potosi mine tour? If so, tell me in the comment section below.