What life is like for the teenage miners of Potosi, Bolivia

This post has been lightly edited for clarity.

At 4,090 meters above sea level, in Bolivia, in the center of the Andes, thousands of people make their living as miners. It is cold, rainy, snowy, dusty and filled with solitude. Humans share their lives with archaic figures such as “El Tio.” This mining god presides over every tunnel entrance. The miners offer him coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol, hoping it will lead to fortune. With gazes limited by deep shadows and labored breathing due to a lack of oxygen, the miners go down into the bowels of the mountain.

The Bolivian government recently passed Law No. 548 on “Ninos y ninas y adolescentes Trabajadores” to protect and regulate child labor. Approved in July 2014, the law aims to adapt the constraints of international conventions on child labor to the needs of subsistence due to the country’s deep poverty. This law establishes the minimum age of workers at 12 years old and defines what activities are forbidden for adolescents. The mining of silver, copper, zinc, lead, asbestos and lithium is a great resource for Bolivia. It is not uncommon to meet young miners in the depths of the earth: men, children, boys like dust grains in the tunnels of Cerro Rico, Potosí, Bolivia.

The people who work these mines are called “Peones.” Peones are required to have their own tools, including picks, breathing filters and helmets. If people don’t have their own tools, there is no way they can work the mines because the mining companies don’t provide them. All peones leave a place in their closets for their tools. Life is hard for peones and they live simply. Their meals are usually just small portions of chicken with some vegetables.

Being a miner also means preparing dynamite for digging. Sometimes father and son work side by side. Each charge is carefully prepared, each ignition must provide the time needed to evacuate the tunnel space demolished by the explosion. Premature male mortality is very high for the miners. The entire economy of Potosi, with its 250,000 inhabitants, is connected to the mines: markets, hardware, pharmacies, salt, tobacco, public transport drivers, merchants, equipment vendors, coca leaf vendors, mechanics and priests.

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