Mining in Bolivia is a “devil’s bargain,” photographer Theo Stroomer says. It's a “resource curse” where a country rich in assets fails to prosper from those resources.
“After half a millennium of mining, Bolivia remains poor. The resources are there, but the profits go elsewhere," he says. "It's a cycle where resources are mined and sent abroad to be sold for much higher prices.“
Stroomer, who started out his career working for newspapers, spent about six months in Bolivia over two trips and became fascinated with mining there because it’s been going on for so long.
“Some areas have been mined continuously for nearly 500 years. I learned about cooperative mining and decided I wanted to share that piece of the story; it's something that we don't really have in the U.S.A.,” says Stroomer.
Cooperative mining refers to groups of miners who band together to form a mining company, paying the government for the rights to mine in a specific area. A cooperative took over the San Jose mine, where Stroomer took a number of his photos, after government operations there shut down.
Stroomer says he spent roughly four months in Oruro, Bolivia, during his two trips there, and collectively about two days underground in the mine, and many more outside it. He’s also photographed in other mines in the area.
“When you walk into the entrance, it gets dark and your senses perk up. As you round the corner, you switch on your headlamp. You walk down a long tunnel and pack onto the elevator, travel down to your level, leave an offering at the Tío statue and continue through the mine.”
Tío is an entity that the miners believe protects them while underground.
“He doesn't replace God, but he's responsible for their well-being once they enter the mine. There are Tío statues near the entrance to each level, and the miners leave offerings of coca, cigarettes and alcohol when they enter,” says Stroomer.
Tío isn’t the only one who gets to enjoy such treats. Stroomer says tobacco, alcohol and coca leaves are a part of the daily routine in the mines, used when the miners take a break while underground. The coca leaves, chewed and then held in the cheek, help keep the miners awake and suppress hunger, in what he classifies as “useful effects” for the miners.
“I can't say with certainty that every single miner chews coca, but I have never been underground with one who didn't.”
Stroomer says that some miners walk a few kilometers to reach their work area, a distance they have to cover carrying sacks of rock on their return. “In one part of the San Jose mine, there's no elevator, just 20 stories worth of ladders that the miners need to climb. I've only been to this part once, and I was exhausted just carrying a small bag with my equipment.”
Beyond the strenuous labor of mining, there are other drawbacks. Many of the miners suffer from silicosis, caused when the lungs are irritated and scarred by the minerals stirred up into the air by the mining process. “This is a profession where you stop because you're forced to,” he says.
The mines also create pollution, from the mining process and from the miners themselves, affecting lakes Poopo and Uru Uru downstream.
“Fishing and agriculture in many communities have been affected as a result, and the rivers that flow down from the mines are filled with trash. Much of that waste came from the miners.”
Stroomer says he hopes that his photographs will give insight to how the miners live, as well as the consequence of “an industry virtually uninhibited by environmental regulations.”
“We have ideas in the United States about what it means to be a miner," he says. "In many ways, it's different in Bolivia. “
– Cody McCloy, CNN