500 years in the mouth of hell

The son of a Bolivian miner plays with a tyre in front of the mining cooperative on Cerro Rico, Potosí, Bolivia. 5D Mark II camera and Canon 24-105mm f4L IS USM lens. Exposure Details: 1/500 seconds @ f11 ISO 250.

This is the entrance to a mining cooperative on the side of a desert mountain above the altiplano of Bolivia. Movement is slow today as it is semana santa and most miners are at home with their families. Hand-painted on the front wall by the gates to the co-op is a sign selling helmets, gloves, boots, facemasks and headlights. A miner stands by the gate entrance chewing coca leaves and watches his son play with a tyre in the dust. It is likely that the boy’s family lines stretch back 500 years to the Incan ‘mita’, an obligatory labour service exploited by the Spanish to acquire slaves to feed into the same mountain. It is estimated that over the centuries more than eight million slaves died working here. So terrible were the conditions that the indigenous miners came to name the mountain ‘la boca del infierno’, the mouth of hell. Roughly 15,000 miners, over a thousand of which are children aged between eight and twelve, still work in the mines today. The average miner here lives only to see the age of 40 before dying from silicosis pneumonia, a result of inhaling toxic dust for decades. Though change may be on the horizon as the mine is estimated to become exhausted within the next 20-40 years. Just what Potosí -a city of 170,000 dependent on mining- will do when the ore runs out is a subject of  growing concern for locals. For now little alternative work is available and within a few years this boy too will most likely swap his tyre for dynamite and road dust for silica. Perhaps though, after 500 years, his may be the last generation to enter the mouth of hell.

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