Many photographers would wait decades to tackle shooting tough subjects like child labor in Bolivia’s mines. Not Daniel Burgui Iguzkiza, a freelance journalist and photographer based in Spain.
After graduating from university in 2007, he and a colleague decided to tackle a project on childhood around the world. The next year they were documenting an Eskimo school in eastern Greenland – and in 2009 they went to Bolivia to capture the lives of child miners.
The stories they found were so powerful they returned again in 2011 and 2013 to follow-up—and the project won a journalism prize from the Spanish nonprofit Manos Unidas. Here, Burgui speaks with Global Journalist’s Viktorija Mickute about following child workers deep underground, legalizing work for 10-year-olds and trade unions for pre-adolescents.
Global Journalist: What surprised or interested you the most about Bolivia’s child miners?
Burgui: First, it is important to take into consideration the fact that mining [work is] extremely hazardous even for adults. It’s literally something that is going to kill you sooner than later. The average life expectancy in the mining areas of Bolivia is not more than 30 or 35 years. People in Bolivia said that being ‘old’ and ‘miner’ is an oxymoron. Also, the working conditions have gotten even worse in the last century. Since the bankruptcy of COMIBOL – the public mining company – in 1985, hundreds of little cooperatives have started operating in the areas. Those cooperatives are just squads of miners exploiting holes by themselves without any security or maintenance; randomly dynamiting the mountain and taking the minerals with their bare hands.
These conditions are even worse for children. We found teenagers and kids working inside and outside the mines for ridiculous wages of 2 euros per day for a 12-hour shift. That’s exploitation—almostslavery.Many of these children and their families live in small houses attached to the pithead; they get water and light for a meagre bulb from the mining cooperative and keep explosives and dynamite in their houses.
Global Journalist: Did you go inside the mines with those kids?
Burgui: Yes, it was dangerous and I was afraid. Every week there are miners who die inside the mine. So, after the first time [in 2009] I promised to myself not to go inside ever again. But I did in 2011 and 2013.
And it is not only about personal risks. The most important thing is not to expose these children to unnecessary risks—possible reprisals [from] adult workers or the owners of the mining company or the cooperatives. They might lose their jobs or be abused, beaten or threatened by others. So we had to be very conscious [to not cause more problems for them]. We are there to tell their story and, if it is possible, to make a good impact on their lives rather than make things more complicated.
Global Journalist: Tell me more about the kids that you met.
Burgui: We found extraordinary kids there. Abigail Canaviri, a 14-year old…[was a] very wise and mature girl. In 2009, she worked every night for more than 11 hours—goingmore than a mile inside the mine. It was her conscious decision to work night shifts because this way she was able to go to school in the morning or the afternoon. She was working in the mine because she really needed money to support her mother and little sister. She was really afraid of seeing her sister die of malnourishment. Her mother was a widow of a miner, like many other women in that place.
We met other children and girls like her. All of them spoke about [the] rights they have as kids and also as workers. And all of them agreed that none of those were respected.The child workers in Bolivia are not passive victims, complaining or begging for help. They are brave and conscious about their situation and many of them are involved in organizations like NATS [‘Niños y Adolescentes Trabajadores’ or ‘Working Children and Teenagers Union’).
Global Journalist: What do you think about the new law in Bolivia that allows children as young as 10 to work legally?
Burgui: It is an effort of the Bolivian government to regularize child labor. And I know that this was a long-term effort of these trade unions of working children, like Abigail and others.
However, it is controversial. Internationally, it is considered a menace for children’s rights. But other attempts to regularize, for example, the consumption of weed or prostitution have been very controversial and had caused strong polemics as well. I understand that people are worried about how the Bolivian initiative can become a bad example for other nations.
However, what we learnt during our time in Bolivia was that avoiding child labor or child exploitation is not something that you can just ban by law and make it disappear from night to day. The little changes and improvements that we saw these years were little successes of local NGOs –Bolivian organizations, like women and mothers associations, or small trade unions.
If you want to [end] child labor, you should offer those children who really need money an alternative - another way to get some income…so that they could at the same time go to school. Also maybe they could be offered scholarships. However, this holistic development is quite utopian in the poorest nation of South America if more industrialized countries do not support it.
Global Journalist: Do you think child labor improves the lives of those children or are they condemned to that kind of life?
Burgui: We cannot have a naïve view of child labor as an isolated issue. The terrible fact is that children work in different places around the world because they need to. They live in extreme poverty and they lack opportunities. It is a stifling circle of poverty.
In our last trips to Bolivia we discovered that the hell that we had witnessed inside the mineswas nothing compared to the little hells inside those little houses of Cerro Rico of Potosi. People are living without running water and electricity on a rocky mountain almost two and a half miles above sea level. In all these little houses, alcoholism and gender violence [are] common. There [are] a wide range of abuses, including incest and killings. Malnourishment rates in the mining areas are really disturbing. So, hunger and the lack of access to clean water literally kills people there. If living conditions are not improved, how can we even talk about avoiding any kind of exploitation?
Butthe women who constitute the biggest population in those areas contribute to real changes. They have been organizing themselves to fight against abuses and to break this circle of poverty. They even have built a school with their own hands.
Global Journalist: Do you keep in touch with the kids that you met?
Burgui: Of course. We went back to Bolivia two times, in 2011 and 2013, to track and follow their stories. Some of the children that we met in 2009 were already gone in 2011. Others had gotten married or found themselves in very difficult situations. Others’ lives had been improving step by step. And after that, we keep in touch via Facebook.
For example, Abigail was very sick in 2010 and 2011. She got a kidney illness, which was probably caused because of working with toxic products in the mine or the toxic water that comes to her house. But she continued going to school and stopped working inside the mine. In 2013, she was in her last years of school and the last news that we’ve received from her and people that support her, like her teachers, was that she was trying to pass an exam to join the Bolivian army. She is a really strong girl.