Last night, we watched the documentary The Devil's Miner via Netflix online streaming - an excellent movie about two young brothers, 12 and 14 years old, who work in the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) silver-tin mines of Potosí, Bolivia. I highly recommend this movie. It documents the poor working conditions at the mines, the poverty of Potosí, and, in particular, the children who work at the mines. The story is told through the eyes of 14-year-old Basilo Vargas, who started working as an underground miner at the age of ten.
Basilo had to go to work after his father died, an event that made him the main provider for his mom, younger sister, and younger brother. Many children in Potosí start working in the mines at young ages; others work at easier jobs - despite child labor laws - in the city. Both brothers go to school when they can; the older brother has plans to leave the mines in six months and go to work in the city - his long range dreams include becoming a teacher and traveling to the major cities of the world. His younger brother wants to become a civil engineer.
The mines are said to have taken 8 million lives since their inception by the Spanish Conquistadors in the mid 16th century. The estimate, as far as I can tell, came from the book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, and includes deaths from underground hazards, silicosis, and mercury contamination. Life expectancy for miners working during the Spanish enslavement period was less than a year; life expectancy of miners today is 35 to 40 years. Currently, of the 8,000 miners working in the Cerro Rico mines, about 1,000 are children between the ages of eight and twelve (from BBC's History echoes in the mines of Potosí by Becky Branford).
The movie is also about Tio, a god or devil the miners make offerings to underground and at tunnel entrances to the mines. The Spanish Conquistadors, trying to crush an uprising by the enslaved indigenous workers, constructed devil-like idols, then they told the workers that this fearful "god" would kill them if they didn't work. The Spanish word "dios" became "tios" because the Quechan language has no "d," and "tios" later became "tio," the Spanish word for uncle. You can see one photo of Tio here; other pictures can be seen at the movie website by clicking on "Gallery."
While writing this, I started wondering about the potential for bringing in a large mining company, either to operate underground using large-scale, low-cost methods, the way El Peñon does in Chile, or to discover and mine a larger, lower grade deposit using open-pit methods. Bolivia, which runs a state-owned mining corporation, has historically been unaccomodating to foreign mining investment, although they recently entered into a joint venture with Apogee Minerals Ltd on an underground mine property located less than 200 km from Potosí. Also, it turns out that the people living there, proud that the City of Potosí is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are against any open-pit-type mining because they don't want to see the shape of the land changed. In fact, the UNESCO Courier reported in 2000 that 97% of people living in Potosí "would rather starve than see the silhouette of El Cerro disappear and, with it, the World Heritage title." [UNESCO doesn't report the actual survey that came up with this number or statement.]
Hopefully, no matter what the future holds for Cerro Rico, children won't have to continue to become miners, and miners won't have to work in such primitive and unhealthy conditions.
Devil's Miner at IMDb
NYTimes movie review: As Bolivian Miners Die, Boys Are Left to Toil
LATimes movie review of 'The Devil's Miner'
City of Potosí - UNESCO World Heritage Site