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Photos: a life in Bolivia's mines

Miners, including children, know the dangers but they risk it anyway. And the government doesn't intervene.

POTOSI, Bolivia — Agustin Villanca Menacho spends his days searching for silver, zinc and tin, sweating in the heat of a deep mine in southern Bolivia. He is 14 years old.

Like the vast majority of the miners at Cerro Rico, he's a Quechua Indian, and like many children working in the mines, he has no father. His died three months ago from the lung disease silicosis.

For centuries, the city of Potosi has operated around Cerro Rico, the greatest silver deposit the Spanish Empire ever found. In the 1600s, Potosi's population rivaled London's. While indigenous and African slaves died by the thousands, silver from the mines filled the Spanish treasury for more than 200 years. People in Potosi like to say you could build a silver bridge to Spain with all the metal extracted from the Cerro.

Today many children in Potosi have few options but to follow their fathers and grandfathers into the mines. Roberto Fernandez directs Potosi NGO Yachay Mosoj, which tries to keep children in school and out of the mines. It is hard to come by reliable numbers on Potosi's mining workforce, but he estimates that out of 8,000 miners in the Cerro, 10 percent are under 18, the legal minimum age to work in a mine. In 2004 UNICEF reported there were nearly 4,000 workers under 18 in Bolivia’s mining centers.

There is little political will to prevent Villanca Menacho and others his age from joining the mining ranks. Labor laws aren't strictly enforced and miners are a powerful group in current-day Bolivia, where socialist president Evo Morales relies on rural and indigenous groups for support. And there is no social welfare safety net for families such as Villanca Menacho’s, which have lost their breadwinner.

In recent years, Potosi's mining cooperatives have fiercely resisted government efforts to take more control of the sector. In the mid-1980s when tin prices crashed, the Bolivian government withdrew its mining operations from Potosi and granted concessions to many miners who hoped to continue scraping a living from the mountain.

Those who hold the concessions and invested in the mine’s infrastructure get a percentage of all profits and can earn well off a fruitful mine. Villanca Menacho, like most in the cooperatives, is not one of those investors. He averages $150 a month in wages.

Miners say their job is like playing the lottery — though it is dangerous, the payoff can be tremendous. The hope that the next tap of the hammer will bring riches and the good life keeps them going. Everyone knows someone it’s happened for, and even teachers and lawyers sometimes moonlight in the mines hoping for that big strike.