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Illuminating the life of child miners in Bolivia

POTOSI, Bolivia — In a violent, white afternoon sunlight that does little to relieve the cold, three teenage boys are lapping down chicken sopped in a thin brown sauce, alongside boiled potatoes and rice.

A mangy disappointed dog is nosing around the trash bin, waiting on scraps that never come. Every plate is dropped empty into a pan of dishwater.

It is windy here. And noisy.

Lunch is underway at the Project for Mining Children and Child Miners, a privately funded program whose beige-colored offices are built into the yellow-red mountain that put Potosi on the map and kept it there for centuries, long before European conquerors found silver in its veins. The project is aligned with the Joining Hands for Life Network in Bolivia, known as UMAVIDA (Uniendo Manos por la Vida). UMAVIDA is partnered in the United States with churches in San Francisco and Newark Presbyteries.

The mountain is called simply Cerro Rico, or, the rich peak.

About 260 kids are enrolled here, just a fraction of those who live in huts amongst the slag on the mountain itself, or, in the unheated company-style homes just across the road.

The amount of silver hauled out of this mountain over the centuries is the stuff of legend, causing Cervantes’ character Don Quixote to comment to his side-kick, Sancho Panza: “It is worth a Potosi.” Meaning, wealth beyond compare.

None of that money is here.

The Spanish consigned thousands of Amerindians and imported African slaves to brutal deaths here, insatiably digging for silver. More than 16,000 tons of silver arrived in Seville less than 100 years after the first shaft was sunk, three and half times more than the European reserves of the day.

One hundred fifty mines still function on Cerro Rico, run by miners’ cooperatives who rent space in the tunnels inside the mountain’s maze-like innards and weigh their loads at the day’s end. Tin, lead and zinc surpass the silver haul these days. While optimists say the mountain has more than 400 years worth of metal on hand, Potosi, once the richest city in South America, is now at the epicenter of one of the poorest regions on the continent.

Cerro Rico’s conical top is beginning to sag and is allegedly at risk of collapse.

The danger may be a metaphor for the lives of the teenage boys who hike daily down its shafts, kids who are consigned to the mines when their dads’ lungs give out or the men succumb to maiming or death. The boys tell themselves this is temporary. But they end up trapped in the same dead-end that cut short their parents’ futures.

“It’s hard work,” says Edwin, 17, who is more hip — and buff — than most here, wearing his lime-green Messa San Diego soccer shirt, a single gold loop in his left ear. He acts like he talks with journalists all the time, cool and collected. Not quite making eye contact. Answering what is asked. Offering nothing else. And continuing to gulp down the still-hot chicken and potatoes.

“We do the same work the adults do,” he says, whether it is pushing carts of rubble out into the air for inspection or setting off dynamite, which, after two years in the shafts, he still hates to detonate.

His side-kick, also named Edwin, 16, worries more about gas.

He fainted once, Edwin says, because of a lack of oxygen. And his buddy, 17-year-old Edwin, carried him out before the “bad gases” got him. His test for air quality is simple. He carries his lamp into the shaft, and, if the flame rises, there is oxygen enough.

Most days, he says, it works.

Both Edwins shrug off the need for masks. They have helmets and boots. And lamps. It is Appalachia 75 years ago, only Latin American-style.

The law requires more, of course. But then, the law also requires that parents sign a permit for kids under 16 to work in the mines. No one at this table has a permit. They’ve also seen younger kids in the tunnels. For a seven-to-eight-hour-shift, the boys say they earn 40 to 50 bolivianos, roughly $7 a day.

Juan Jose is more quiet and seems somehow more vulnerable.

As his friends talk, he listens. He is 15 and has been mining for three years. His father is dead and he has no other choice, he says. His older brother is a miner too. The creases in his fingers are black with embedded dirt that won’t ever quite wash out. He front teeth are tilted at an odd angle. He says that he saw a rockslide kill a man once. For a long time, he couldn’t get it out of his mind. But it no longer haunts him daily.

Unlike the other two, he turns his whole paycheck over to his mother.

All of the boys have dropped out of school.

The Edwins say they got sacked because they couldn’t get to class on time. The younger Edwin says he’ll do better next year and make up for lost time. He’s earned some money and – aside from that nasty scare with the gas — his only other injury is a fractured rib. Occasionally, he hacks up something messy from his throat.

This is all about money, says the elder Edwin.

“People need the money coming in,” he says, adding that he’d never recommend Cerro Rico to other kids, but there are few options here and people need to eat.

He hints that mining is only temporary for him.

Juan Jose is more circumspect.

He’d like to earn money another way, but Potosi isn’t a boomtown. He says it might be easier to plan on leaving the mine if his father wasn’t dead and still earned a paycheck. “I’d like to leave here … but it doesn’t seem possible,” Juan Jose says, adding that he, like most miners, chews coca in the shaft to fight fatigue and hunger.

When asked if they know anyone who actually left Cerro Rico, there is a blank chorus of no’s.

Then the elder Edwin says yes. He knows someone who quit Cerro Rico. He went to another mine up the road from Potosi.

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