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The children who work the Bolivian silver mines
A hell below

Review by Sarah Macaraeg | March 17, 2006 | Page 9

The Devil's Miner, a documentary by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani.

ACCORDING TO the United Nations Children's Fund, 246 million children around the world are engaged in child labor. Nearly 70 percent of that work is performed under hazardous conditions--in mines or using chemicals and pesticides or dangerous machinery.

The Devil's Miner tells the story of 14-year-old Basilio Vargas. Basilio doesn't like girls. He adores French class and soccer. Working as a miner's apprentice since he was 10, his income is the main source of survival for his mother, sister and brother, who works alongside him in the enormous Cerro Rico mine in Potosí, Bolivia.

Discovered in the 16th century during Spanish colonial rule, Cerro Rico, "the Rich Pinnacle," was the largest silver find in the history of the Americas. During that era, 2 billion ounces of silver were extracted from the mountain, helping to fund the rise of the Spanish Armada and the European Renaissance--all at an enormous human cost.

The Spanish enslaved the local Indian population and created a system of forced labor called "la mita," where all males between 18 and 50 were ordered to work in the mines for a period of four months every seven years. Not only were they paid a pittance and rarely saw the light of day, but they were forced to work from dusk until dawn in deadly conditions.

An Augustine monk, Fray Antonio de la Calancha, wrote at the time "Every peso coin minted in Potosi has cost the life of 10 Indians who have died in the depths of the mines."

As horrifying as Spanish rule was, even more obscene is the fact that now--centuries later in a world of plenty--conditions have changed little. Working in the mines is the only way Basilio and his brother Bernardino can afford to pay tuition, buy their uniforms, receive the required haircut, and eventually never have to return.

Working sometimes 24 hours a day in temperatures up to 104 degrees and in clouds of toxic dust, the young miners handle explosives and go unwarned as a series of explosions are set off in the mine--worrying every day if they will make it out alive. As 12-year-old Bernardino, a miner of two years, says, "I don't want to die in the mines. I want to survive...until I am big."

Since the mine was established, over 8 million workers have died in Cerro Rico. Two-thirds of Potosi's mining population--1,000 of whom are children--have respiratory ailments. On average, the life expectancy of a miner is 45 years, as most succumb to black lung disease in their thirties.

But even more devastating than the grim realities of mining life brought to light in the movie are the candid interviews with Basilio, who is clearly a caring son and protective brother, a child hungry for ideas, friends, education and a better life for himself and his family.

Given the role that neoliberalism--a U.S. led-agenda of privatization and trade liberalization--has played in creating these miserable conditions but also in sparking some inspiring popular struggle in recent years, it's unfortunate that The Devil's Miner focuses so much on the miners' devout Catholicism and belief in the devil, "Tio," who rules the underworld with the power to protect and destroy miners' lives.

As interesting as the dual theology is, in reality, it was the 1985 privatization of COMIBOL--Bolivia's state-owned mining company--that put 30,000 miners out of work, effectively destroying their lives. And the militant social movements of landless peasants, cocaleros and workers have been the only thing protecting the lives of ordinary Bolivians since, fighting the privatization of water and hydrocarbon and winning.

But even without a broader context or history, The Devil's Miner makes a profound statement, given the enthusiasm, in Bolivia and internationally, surrounding the country's recently elected president, Evo Morales.

Morales, the country's first indigenous president and leader of MAS (Movement Toward Socialism), promised in the last days of his campaign to "bury neoliberalism." But since taking office, Morales has appointed Walter Villarroel, a former member of the right-wing UCS party to the Ministry of Mines. Villarroel's previous work with the government included dismantling and privatizing COMIBOL.

An agenda of radical reform, not rhetoric, is desperately needed in a system that robs the young of their childhood, and subjects them to stress, fatigue and mortal injury on a daily basis, with scarce time to play and learn.

As the revolutionary Victor Serge wrote, "The Red City is fighting so that one day leisure and art shall be the property of all." They should most certainly be the property of children.

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