Colonial Spanish discoveries remain a deadly hardship for child workers

Colonial Spanish discoveries remain a deadly hardship for child workers

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In the Bolivian Andes child workers lead lives with death on their backs in silver mining areas discovered by Spanish colonialists centuries ago; disease and illness is just scratching the surface.

Potosi -- Abigail Canaviri, 14, attends school by day in the Bolivian Andes. But when the sun sets she and other children tunnel deep into the world's highest mine, following in their late fathers' footsteps in a treacherous search for silver.

"Since age twelve I've worked here," a frail Abigail says about Cerro Rico, the spectacularly perched mountain-top pit in Potosi, a remote city popular with tourists, that is home to the widows and orphans of Bolivia's mining world.

"They pay me twenty bolivianos (about three dollars) per day to scavenge through ten or twelve minecarts. I enter at six [in the evening] and leave at four or five in the morning," she told AFP.

Abigail is among several dozen children who work alongside 12,000 adults mining the mountain of money that is Cerro Rico, which for four centuries has veined the greatest silver deposit ever uncovered by the Spanish empire.

She and her young friends know the dangers, but have few options as they seek to end -- or at least ease -- the vicious cycle of poverty afflicting their families.

PHOTO/Aizar Raldes
Bolivia, Potosi : Brothers Luis (L) and Vladimir Menacho, 15 and 16 years old respectively, work at the mine entrance in Cerro Rico hill in Potosi, Bolivia

"My dad died of the mine illness,'" Abigail said, referring to the respiratory disease silicosis, which worldwide is believed to have killed thousands of miners whose lungs become infected with crystaline dust that is raised during drilling and inhaled.

"Now, I work to help the family."

She pushes rickety minecarts along metal rails that wind toward the entrance, each bearing a one-ton haul of earth and rock she hopes will yield a high payload of silver, tin or zinc.

Her face darkened when she recalled how she suffered an infection earlier this year that sent her to hospital and led to the removal of one of her kidneys -- and yet she toils on.

"We lack things. My sister needs shoes, and to meet such needs I go down the mine."

Other young teens like Abigail work in Cerro Rico, southern Bolivia's historic symbol of wealth that has been operated continuously since the 14th century, first by the Incas, then the Spanish and their indigenous and African slaves, then the Bolivian government and now by private firms.

Fourteen-year-old Efrain Cartagena works alongside Abigail. His father, too, died from silicosis, forcing the boy to become a breadwinner. He said that after working here for two years he earns about eight dollars per day loading and unloading ore.

Before entering the mine, workers of all ages sit and chew coca leaves to ward off hunger and fatigue -- a ritual begun centuries ago by native Indians and embraced by today's miners.

In often vulgar language, they gossip and share their dreams and troubles. Then they hunch over and trundle into various low-ceiling tunnels, the mud floor often slickened by copagira, an acidic liquid runoff that contains dangerous chemicals and minerals which drip from the mine's walls and ceilings.

The future is bleak for these so-called 'child moles' who live with death on their backs, according to a Swiss humanitarian organization which runs an orphanage and school in Potosi, Voix Libres Foundation.

The foundation says that, for boys, the future holds work at the mine with a life expectancy of about 35 years due to silicosis.. For girls mine work environments lead to multiple pregnancies and early widowhood before winding up as a 'recycler' or night guard at the mine.

AFP PHOTO/Aizar Raldes
Bolivia, Potosi : A general view of the Cerro Rico - called Sumaj Urqu in native quechua (meaning majestic hill) - one of the largest silver deposits in the world and a symbol on the Bolivian coat of arms, in Potosi, Bolivia

According to Voix Libres, which has won an award from the Women's Union of Potosi for its work with children in the Bolivian Altiplano, there are now between 50 and 60 teenagers who work at the mine -- although that number rises along with the price of silver and tin.

One cooperative which requests anonymity says about 120 children work in Potosi's mines.

During its latest census, in 2001, the International Labour Organization (ILO) determined that 381 people under age 18 worked at Cerro Rico, and that nationwide there were ten times that many children in the industry, although the ILO has said that in recent years thousands of underage workers have withdrawn from the mines.

A Potosi federation of cooperatives, formed by miners in some 50 private firms, said major employers shy away from the problem.

"Miners often lie about their age in order to work in the tunnels, avoiding state control and possible loss of their job," a representative of the group told AFP.

Mining employs thousands of people and generates billions of dollars in revenue for mineral-rich Bolivia. Regulations are considered lax, and when the state does make efforts to remove children from the mines, they brush up against a harsh reality.

Bolivian youth enter the mines because "they are poor and orphans from broken homes," and can earn more there than in the other fields, the ombudsman for children in Potosi, Marcelino Chucucea, said.

He recognises there are Bolivian rules on the books prohibiting child labor in unsafe conditions, but so long as there are riches to exploit, Cerro Rico will continue to demand cheap labor.

Jose Arturo Cardenas / AFP / Expatica

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