Youth set up a mobile food stand
Youth set up a mobile food stand near the Mercado de Minero, or Miner's Market, in San Luís Potosí. (Scott Squires, July 2014)

January 12, 2018

Child Labor and the Mountain that Eats Men

By Sofia Bonilla

Sofia Bonilla is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in Plan II Honors, International Relations & Global Studies, and Iberian & Latin American Literatures & Cultures. She is an Undergraduate Intern at the Rappoport Center for Human Rights and Justice.

The town of Potosí in Bolivia rests at the bottom of a soaring, 15,800-foot mountain called Cerro Rico. The mountain provides the primary, and nearly only, source of income for the town of 240,000 inhabitants. During their 16th-century conquest of Latin America, the Spanish enslaved the indigenous people there, imported African slaves from overseas, and forced both groups to mine silver from the mountain. At the time, Cerro Rico held one of the richest silver deposits in Bolivia and the world and was a source of abundant wealth for the Spanish Empire. Eventually, the slaves nearly hollowed out the mountain—although there remains a residual supply of silver, Bolivian miners mainly extract tin and zinc.[1]

As a result of years of mining activities, modern-day Cerro Rico is riddled with caverns, shafts, sinkholes, and precarious tunnels, so much so that engineer Nestor Rene Espinoza describes it as “a slab of Swiss cheese.”[2] The risks associated with mining this mountain are not new. Historians estimate that over eight million miners have died since extraction began at Cerro Rico in the mid-1500s.[3] However, these are not the only reasons it is called “The Mountain That Eats Men.” Miners, a majority of whom are of indigenous descent, still use equipment introduced in the nineteenth century: headlamps powered by fire, manual hammers and pickaxes, and outdated drills. Even more startling is the prevalence of child miners, some of whom start mining at age twelve. These children work in oxygen-scarce conditions, risk falling down mine shafts hundreds of feet long, and face being blown to pieces by a surprise detonation. Despite these treacherous conditions, the most common killer is silicosis—a lung disease caused by breathing in rock particles that reduces one’s lifespan to just forty years—locally known as “black lung.”[4] Miners wear facemasks for protection, but the thin paper layer does little to stave off the disease.

The child miners earn less than two dollars and fifty cents (US) per day on the precarious mountain, sometimes less, depending on how much silver, tin, and other precious minerals they can extract. Many of these young miners have nowhere else to turn. Cerro Rico is their only option for work. Without their labor to supplement—or even provide—the family income, their families will starve. A majority of the child miners and their families live on the side of the mountain in huts powered by a single light bulb. They perform this extremely dangerous work in the early hours of the morning so they are able to attend school during the day.[5]

Though the many dangers of Cerro Rico loom over Potosí, “[n]either the labor ministry nor COMIBOL—the national mining agency that leases concessions to more than 30 mining cooperatives grouping together some 15,000 miners on Cerro Rico—even attempt to enforce health and safety laws.”[6] Oscar Cáceres, a COMIBOL geologic engineer, explains that the state is not responsible for deaths or accidents on or within the mountain, leaving miners of all ages to their own devices upon entry.[7] The child labor laws in Bolivia allow children as young as ten years old to work legally,[8] while the International Labor Organization sets the general minimum employment age at fifteen years and the minimum age for hazardous work at eighteen.[9] The Bolivian law was created in an effort to make child labor a safer, more regulated practice,[10] but work environments such as Cerro Rico suggest that the law has failed in this respect.

Rather than lowering the legal age of work, governments can create social insurance programs so that children are not expected to supplement household incomes. These programs, such as conditional cash transfers (CCTs), can help poor families—the main demographic that practices child labor—by awarding a monthly salary in exchange for their children attending school. This tactic was successfully implemented through Brazil’s state-funded Bolsa Família program which both prohibits child labor and “provid[es] financial incentives [of twelve USD per month] to poor families that ensure that their children attend school regularly and receive vaccinations.”[11] The World Bank testifies to Bolsa Família’s success, citing it as “one of the key factors behind the positive social outcomes achieved by Brazil in recent years.”[12]

The Bolivian government introduced its own national CCT program in 2006,[13] aimed at alleviating the pressure on children and enabling them to focus on school. The program, called the Bono Juancito Pinto, awards an annual two hundred Bolivianos (twenty-eight USD) to families whose children attend at least eighty percent of the school year. In 2012, President Morales announced that the CCT program had reduced the dropout rate from “6.1 percent in 2006 to 2.0 percent in 2012.”[14] Although UNICEF confirms the program’s positive impact on Bolivia, [15] research by James W. McGuire reveals that Bono Juancito Pinto mainly improved drop-out rates of preschool, first- and second-graders—not secondary school students, who are the main participants in child labor.[16] Even after the program was later extended to include secondary school students, McGuire found that the Bono Juancito Pinto had virtually no effect on child labor “given that the school day in Bolivia is only 4 hours long, and is, therefore, compatible with the average workday length of child laborers, which is about 5.5 hours.”[17] Despite these shortcomings, the program is still in use and is expected to assist 179,068 students in Potosí[18] as of October 2017.

The silver extracted and shipped internationally from Cerro Rico carries with it centuries of hazardous labor practices and millions of deaths. This phenomenon is not unique to Potosí. There are “218 million children between 5 and 17 years” working worldwide, with “almost half of them, 73 million, work[ing] in hazardous child labour.”[19] Children around the world are risking their safety in order to maintain their family’s livelihood in the face of poverty, violence, labor exploitation, and ineffective governmental regulation. Governments, in turn, must continue searching for impactful methods to aid poor families and end the dangerous cycle child labor produces. Programs like Bono Juancito Pinto and other financial plans serve as helpful starting points, but cannot alone resolve this problem. Without deliberate and effective action, the global economy will continue to place the lives of children at risk.



[1] Simeon Tegel, “Cerro Rico: The Mountain That Eats Men.” Public Radio International. March 20, 2013. Accessed November 14, 2017.

[2] Juan Forero, “Bolivia’s Cerro Rico: The Mountain That Eats Men.” NPR. September 25, 2012. Accessed November 14, 2017.

[3] Dan Collyns, “’Bolivia’s Cerro Rico mines killed my husband. Now they want my son.’” The Guardian. June 24, 2014. Accessed February 7, 2018.

[4] See supra note1.

[5] Viktorija Mickute, “Mineritos: Bolivia’s Child Miners.” Global September 4, 2014. Accessed February 8, 2018.

[6] See supra note 1.

[7] Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, “Mined to Death: Why Bolivia’s Cerro Rico Mountain Is Collapsing.” TIME Inc. June 16, 2011. Accessed November 14, 2017.,8599,2077641,00.html.

[8] NPR staff, “Bolivia Makes Child Labor Legal, In An Attempt To Make It Safer.” NPR. July 30, 2014. Accessed November 14, 2017.

[9] International Labor Organization, Minimum Age Convention, 1973, (No.138). The convention does provide for the possibility of initially setting the general minimum age at 14 (12 for light work) where the economy and educational facilities in a given country are insufficiently developed.

[10] See supra note 6.

[11] Council On Hemispheric Affairs, “Made in Brazil: Confronting Child Labor.” COHA. November 16, 2010. Accessed November 14, 2017.

[12] World Bank staff, “Bolsa Família: Changing the Lives of Millions in Brazil.” World Bank. August 22, 2007. Accessed February 8, 2018.

[13] James McGuire, Conditional Cash Transfers in Bolivia: Origins, Impact, and Universality. (Wesleyan University, 2013).

[14] See supra note 9.

[15] Mariana Perez, “UNICEF Destaca El Pago de Los Bonos Sociales Para Los Niños.” Cambio. November 4, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2017.

[16] See supra note 10.

[17] See supra note 10.

[18] Rocío Ruiz,. “El bono Juancito Pinto beneficia a 179.068 estudiantes en Potosí.” El Potosí. October 23, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2017.

[19] International Labor Organization. “Child Labour.” ILO. September 2017. Accessed November 14, 2017.–en/index.htm.

Project & Publications Type: Human Rights Commentary