Bleak life in dark Bolivian mine

Jorge, 13, runs the risk of his lungs being incurably destroyed, for seven dollars and 23 cents he earns a day.

A Bolivian miner transports minerals inside the El Rosario mine in Potosi
"If you are a miner in Bolivia, you're lucky if all you come down with is tuberculosis" [Reuters]

Potosi, Bolivia – Deep inside a pitch black narrow underground cavern underground, Jorge is dripping in sweat, sitting on a wheelbarrow.

Jorge is a miner.

He’s taking a minute to catch his breath.

Jorge says he sometimes starts work at 3am.

The air is thin. The mine is about 15,000 feet – or 5,000 metres – above sea level.

Jorge’s teeth are badly stained.

He’s sucking on a wad of coca leafs which form a bulge in his cheek. It kills the hunger and headaches.

Jorge is digging for silver and zinc.

It’s hazardous stuff here.

Jorge is working in an alleyway of the mine so narrow only one wheelbarrow can pass at a time. On the side, open mine shafts that drop down into blackness.

It’s dark. The only light here is a beam coming from a headlamp on his hard hat.

Jorge makes about 50 Bolivianos a day. That’s about seven dollars – seven dollars and 23 cents, to be exact.

Jorge’s not much for words. But it’s clear this is a life of necessity, not choice.

“I use the money to buy clothes for me and my family,” he says.

There is something else you should know about Jorge.

He’s 13 years old.

And he’s been working as a miner since he was 11.


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Lung risks

If Jorge continues working in the mines, he’ll be lucky if he lives to see his 50th birthday.

Not because of the immediate dangers, but because of the health risks associated with his job.

There is no natural air being pumped inside the mine.

So the mine is filled with dust and toxic particles hanging in the air.

Breathing it day after day, year after year, slowly rots the lungs.

Jorge says his health is fine, but he knows there are risks.

“I have heard miners get sick… with lung disease,” he says.

Jorge’s mining partner on this day is Deymar, his dad.

Of course, Deymar says he doesn’t want his son working here. But it’s the only option for work and, well, they need to eat.

Deymar, 44, is a lifelong miner.

“In the mine there is a lot of dust, sometimes I get bronchitis, sometimes my kidneys hurt and I also think it affects the heart,” he said. “Every time we come to the mine there is some disease we miners are exposed too.”

Jorge and his dad don’t wear masks. They are under the false impression that since the mine is damp and cold the dust doesn’t pose as much of a health risk.

As freelance miners working for themselves, they can’t afford any fancy breathing apparatus anyway.

Crowded hospital

It’s not difficult to hazard a guess as to what life down the road might be for Jorge and his father.

Just drive down the mountain and go to one of the hospitals in the mining town of Potosi – population 170,000 – where hundreds of sick miners cram hospital wards.

Among the crowd is Nicolas Cruz, 47, so sick he labours to breathe. He has been a miner for 15 years.

“At home my hands and lips were turning black because of lack of oxygen,” Cruz says in a low, raspy voice. “That is why I came back to the hospital. My lungs are wasted.”

Cruz is able to answer about four questions before he is out of breath and starts choking.

“If we get sick, we don’t have enough money to take care of ourselves.

– Deymar, Jorge’s father

He’s in a hospital room with five other beds. All are filled with sick miners. They’re sick, depressed, and in no mood to talk.

The nurses try to help, but the dark hospital room is basic – metal beds with a few sheets and blankets, bed pans on the floor and bare walls with chipped paint.

Not one of the patients has a ‘get well’ card on the nightstand, or flowers by their bed.

Outside the hospital room, Eduardo Copa is sitting in a patio, by himself, staring off into space, leaning up against his oxygen canister. He was a driller in the mines for 17 years, he says.

Copa is 43, but his eyes are puffy, and face drawn in, making him look much older.

He’s been in the out of the hospital for three years.

“There was a lot of dust in the mine, and that dust entered my lungs,” he says. “My lungs are full of minerals now… I can’t breathe any more, I lack a lot of air.”

Silent killers

If you’re a miner in Bolivia, you’re lucky if all you come down with is tuberculosis. Everyone else gets silicosis, a nasty lung disease from prolonged inhaling of dust.

“Tuberculosis is treatable, silicosis is not,” said Carmen Naranjo, a local doctor in town. “Silicosis advances, compromising all the structural parts of the lung. Most of the people we have seen eventually die because of bleeding through the respiratory channels.”

Both Nicolas Cruz and Eduardo Copa have silicosis.

Naranjo estimates that 60 per cent of all the patients she sees in Potosi are sick miners with acute respiratory illness from working in the mines.

The average life span of a career miner in Bolivia is 40 to 50 years.

The government does not keep detailed statistics on how many miners die each year of lung disease.

But in Potosi, Naranjo is faced with a reality that is even more worrisome.

We are seeing cases in very young people, 25-30-year-olds who are very sick,” she says. “It’s very worrisome.”

“It could mean that if Jorge continues to do the work he does now, his lungs will be incurably destroyed by the time he is 21.

Bleak future

Jorge’s future therefore looks as bleak as the dark mine he works in.

Bolivia has laws on the books forbidding children from working in the mines. But there are hundreds like Jorge working in the mines every day in Bolivia.

Going to school is a luxury Jorge can’t afford.

His father, Deymar, says he only wants his boy to work in the mine a short time more.

“If we get sick, we don’t have enough money to take care of ourselves,” he says. “Hopefully Jorge can get another job someday.”

According to Naranjo, the doctor, silicosis usually develops in people after 10 years of working the mines.

Jorge started out as a miner when he was 11.

It could mean that if he continues to do the work he does now, his lungs will be incurably destroyed by the time he is 21. And he could end up as another sick miner in a barren room in the Potosi hospital: all for seven dollars and 23 cents a day.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter: @elizondogabriel

– With reporting from Maria Elena Romero and Monica Garcia Zea

Source: Al Jazeera