Written by Fidgit
It was around midnight, we were hitching back to town from a day of roadwalking and were picked up by a mine truck driver. “When they can, families delay sending their boys into the mines until we have graduated from secondary school,” he peers ahead into the darkness across the comically large steering wheel of the semi, “because once you start going under ground, you only have 10 or 20 good years of life left. But most go underground around the age of 15 because their family needs the money.”
“It is the breathing that kills them, the mines give us masks but after a while, the men quit wearing them, they get in the way.” His father and brothers worked in the mines around Huanuni, the largest tin mine in the country. As the youngest of 9 children, he got lucky; he’s a driver.
Bolivia is the highest country in South America, sitting atop massive reserves of natural minerals and energy resources, yet it remains the continent’s poorest country. Mining accounts for almost 30% of Bolivia’s exports, its second largest source of income. The Santa Isabel deposit in Potosí hosts some 40 million tons of ore containing silver, lead, zinc, tin, and gold. The Salar de Uyuni sits on 5.4 million tons of Lithium, the largest known concentration, estimated to be about half the world’s supply.
But Bolivians simply refer to it all as “minerals,” and everyone has at least one family member who works in the mines. While walking, we have seen a number of small, personal operations, dug by hand and shovel; we have also passed massive, tiered complexes with entire cities built around them.
“Vicuñas are not supposed to be hunted here,” he starts back up, seeming to randomly switch topics to the ubiquitous and skittish camelid which populates these high planes, “but people hunt them anyway, because the miners believe that if you drink a vicuña’s blood, you get another 5 years of life. Also, their fur is very warm, so it is valuable. A vicuña blanket costs about 7000 Bolivianos (~$1000 USD).”
The vicuña are a cousin to the ganaco, alpaca, and Bolivia’s national animal, the llama.
There is a lot nationalized in Bolivia, as the President these past 11 years is heavily leftists and socialist. Ever since Eduardo Rodriguez, the former President (who according to popular consensus stole millions of dollars before making off to the USA), the indigenous vote, which comprise 62% of Bolivia’s population, elected Evo Morales, their first leader of indigenous decent and a “tri-lingue” (speaking all three of the main languages in Bolivia: Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua).
He has made strides in transport infrastructure (improved roads, railroads, and the new La Paz gondola system ‘mi teleferico’), increasing general quality of life of the average Bolivian (maternal and infant mortality rates have dropped and life expectancy has been increasing), and made mining a central tenant.
While he is regarded with skepticism by international businesses and many outside countries, most Bolivians we have talked to love him. The legends around this man are told with relish and are relatable to the average Bolivian: his impoverished upbringing, only carrying a high school education, cutting the presidential salary by over 75% as soon as he took office, benevolent responses to harsh action by neighboring countries; we hear at least one such story for every time we hitch-hike. He is one of them, and they feel they finally have a voice and their best interest is being looked after.
“If he gets elected again in 2020, he will probably just remain our President,” our driver shrugs.
“Who did you vote for?” I inquire.
“I vote blank. Voting is mandatory, if you don’t vote, you can’t get money out of the bank. So, whoever checks my card just fills it in.”
According to current policy presidential terms in Bolivia are five years and renewable only once. We already see graffiti calling for his re-election in 2025. “Evo si,” is the slogan. Sometimes painted over the official white and green graffiti is a red “no”.
The walls are a literal “ya-huh, nu-uh, ya-huh, nu-uh,” argument.
Under Evo’s policies, like the oil and gas sector, investors can own a maximum of 49% of a mine or project, with state-owned companies holding the majority. In 2014, the new Mining Law was signed, effectively dictating that contracts will be signed between private companies and COMIBOL (the government mining company). The first decree went into effect in 2007 after violence erupted between cooperative and COMIBOL miners. The protests and conflict resulted in a Bolivian deputy interior minister being beaten to death, 115 injuries, a shed of explosives blowing sky high and rendering two bodies of the 15 who died over the two days impossible to piece back together.
“Certainly you read about it,” our driver looks at me out of the corner of his eye, “we were in the international news.” It is two a.m. now, my mind is drifting. I would have been 20, then, occupied with college, studying abroad, myself, generally. I was not a 15 year old working in a mine, drinking contraband vicuña blood to buy myself a couple more years of life.
I think about the cemeteries outside each of the cities we pass through, the dates on the burial vaults which cover the hillsides.
How childbirth kills the women here, so the mines kill the men.
Yet both are their paths to the future.