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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.

Sitting in the courtyard outside the one-room house he shares with his mother and two younger siblings, Villanca Menacho talks about his life. “I went to the mine because my dad died, and who’s going to give us money?” he asks. Villanca Menacho hopes to return to school after working for a year, but others have given up on a life outside of the mines.

Fifteen-year-old Eduardo Colque Conde has already been working in the mine for three years. “I’ll work here all my life, I think,” he says. “I’m already used to it.”

The mines can be terrifying places where miners slide down narrow tunnels full of choking dust to reach the lower levels. If dynamite explosions, collapsing tunnels or poisonous gasses don’t kill a miner, silicosis eventually will. Protective equipment consists of nothing more than a headlamp and rubber boots. Within 10 to 30 years, full-blown silicosis affects nearly everyone. “It doesn’t bother me because I’m still OK,” says Colque Conde, smiling.

Many miners share his attitude. They know the dangers of the mines, but bravado trumps fear. They are tough, and they are proud. They also don’t have many other options in Potosi, where manual jobs outside of mining are scarce.

Though NGOs, Bolivian and foreign journalists continue to document child labor in Cerro Rico, the practice continues because it is culturally accepted, because there is little law enforcement and, ultimately, because of need.

Fernandez of Yachay Mosoj says that regardless of inspections and politics, it’s impossible to stop children from working the Cerro when they have no other option but going hungry. “Ending child labor is a fantasy without another form of living,” he says.