Community stories

Daniel Humberto Rodríguez

Daniel Humberto Rodríguez strolls across the green soccer field of Carbon Mine 2 in Tópaga. He has been working here for the past 11 years, and his current position is to ply out the mineral with a pickaxe. He first began working in the sector when he was 10 years old. Now at the age of 34, his many years of experience have taught him much, though they came along with a share of complicated moments. Now that he has one child, and his wife is expecting another, he reflects on these memories and what it meant for him to have to work as a child and the mining conditions in his municipality.

His experience as a child worker

“Unfortunately, I had to work at a very young age,” explains Daniel. Son of a humble rural housewife who earned a daily wage of COP ,000 pesos planting corn or potatoes, he had to take on the responsibility of providing for his family long before it was his time. Looking down at the grassy soccer field, Daniel explained the responsibilities he had to shoulder as the eldest of four siblings. “My father left us and didn’t come back, and my mother, who is a woman I greatly admire, unfortunately did not make enough money,” he recalls.

On a typical day, ten-year old Daniel would put on his shoes and go to school in the morning, then spend the afternoon working in a mine lathe, turning a hoist placed over a shaft. He then went on to work as a whim-driver, cranking a pulley, and sorting out poor-grade ore from the coal. “I was in seventh grade and ready to go into eighth. I worked grading the coal so that I could enroll, but then I didn’t get paid and my mom couldn’t afford to pay the school fees. So I had to drop out.” Daniel gets flushed with emotion remembering how he had wanted to continue studying: “That was tough.”

It didn’t last long, though. “By then I liked the money [I was earning]. I didn’t want to study anymore; I wanted to work,” he explains. Being able to work and drink beer made him feel older, and, for a while, he no longer cared about not having the opportunity to study. “You wanted to feel older, and that’s how life passed by.” The “love of money”, as several miners call it, or the excessive value placed on money at a young age, is one of the main drivers of child labor, which was reiterated by several of the miners interviewed in a study that ARM conducted as part of the Somos Tesoro project.

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Perceptions of child labor

“I had to walk barefoot on the weekends,” Daniel remembers, not as part of a game but out of necessity, due to the lack of economic means in his family. He admits that children and adolescents currently have more opportunities to go to school. However, the economy of his municipality (Tópaga, in Boyacá, Colombia) is based mostly on coal mining. Before, he remembers, there used to be agriculture, but now “the soil does not yield fruit”. Daniel points out that, “In Tópaga, if you’re not a priest, you’re a soldier, and if not that, then a police officer, and if not that either, then a miner.”

With a worried look, he explains that he has “known young boys who started working at an early age, not because their parents couldn’t pay for their education, but rather because they want to have money and seem tough. That’s when they start smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, etc.” Daniel uses his experience to warn them. “Believe me, there are teenagers who have told me that they want to work, and I tell them: No buddy, mining isn’t for everyone. It will destroy your health. Study now, and help your family later. Then they’ll complain that you’re butting into their life, but some can only handle working for 15 or 20 days before they’re ready to quit.” This was another finding of a recent study conducted by the organization Pact, in which children and adolescents from the region were interviewed. It identified that “this seemingly universal ideal of childhood, of children dedicated to learning, to creating, and to being happy, is not shared by them. Quite the contrary, it’s seen as an ideal for the lazy, a lifestyle that in their eyes does not look too promising” (A.E. Villegas, M.E. Gáfaro, 2017).

“Four years back, this was a grassless gully.”

Despite the bad experiences of his past, Daniel trusts that responsible mining is possible. In the mine where he currently works, they built the soccer field where he now sits. “Four years back, this was a grassless gully.” It was transformed from the mine’s wastewater, which passed through the treatment tanks and irrigated the field. The grassy lawn now welcomes miners and community members who want to play on holidays and in their time off.

Things can be done well, but it requires resources. “There is a lot of illegal mining, which does not provide for the workers’ safety. The miners take what they can before abandoning it, leaving behind desolate places, because mining sterilizes the land,” warns Daniel. He also affirms that “there are projects that mine coal, then reforest the area and take care of the environment”. When he talks about responsible mining, he emphasizes the importance of training and the courses that have allowed him to learn more about responsible mining. Daniel names the National Mining Agency, the government advanced education institution SENA, and the Somos Tesoro child labor project, of which the Alliance for Responsible Mining takes part. “ARM is changing mining, by teaching us how to be more responsible in terms of safety and eradicating child labor,” he comments.

“I still have this memory from when I was 14 years old”

“Almost everything they said during the training reminded me of my past,” he stressed, referring to the topic of child labor in mining. He believes that it is worth discussing, in order to prevent today’s youth from having to endure what he did. In a dialogue about child labor, it is inevitable for Daniel to recall an episode that marked his life when he was a teenager working in the mines.

“I still have this memory from when I was 14 years old, when I got hit by a coal mine cart,” he says, revealing the scar on his index finger. Where he worked “they were unable to help me,” he explains, choked by the emotion of the memory. His mother had to sell the only cow she had to pay for his hospitalization. “After that we had to pay, pay, pay… and here remains the memory.”

Child labor is prohibited in Colombia, so there is a tendency to hide the presence of underage workers and to not report their injuries to the authorities. Instead, the employers try to resolve the matter directly with the child’s family, a situation that ARM confirmed in a study that it will soon release. This generates helplessness and the ‘invisibilization’ of minor workers, accentuating their vulnerability.

That bad memory did not put an end to his work. Daniel explains that mining has also given him good things, and he proudly relates how his experience taught him that everything must be earned through your own effort. “I was taught to not make money the easy way, by taking advantage or taking anything away from anyone.” As a parent, he wants to be able to pay for his children’s schooling and let them focus on their education. What’s important, he underlines, “is having decency and being humble. Maybe you won’t have money, but you can always have decency”.

“You shouldn’t just put on a helmet”

“I would not like my children to work in mining,” he confesses. Yet, he wouldn’t mind if, “they got into it as mining technologists or engineers”. Daniel is hopeful that this can be achieved, because he and his wife can work to provide what their two children need. She gives talks on industrial safety and contributes this income to their family economy, although she is currently pregnant and not working.

Despite the additional opportunities available today, it is inevitable for Daniel to think that “here in Boyacá there is only coal” and that it would be difficult to make a living from anything else should this sector dry up. The miner thinks that there is a lot of poverty across the country, and this is why “there are 11-year-old kids who go into a river to try to extract minerals,” he believes. “Sometimes I tear up and ask myself why I didn’t study, why I didn’t have the opportunity to go to school,” he wonders, crestfallen. In his view, the lack of opportunities and values is what needs to be changed. He refers to the concept of “watching each other’s back” in the workforce, for example: “if you can’t take care of yourself, then I’ll take care of you”.

His final reflection on child labor refers to the campaign slogan of the Alliance for Responsible Mining and Somos Tesoro: “I’m putting on a helmet and getting to work on making mining free of child labor.” He says, “It is difficult to eradicate child labor, but it can be done. I would have liked to have someone support me with my studies, someone to help me buy textbooks, school uniforms, etc. But unfortunately back then I didn’t”.

“You shouldn’t just put on a helmet, but put in your whole heart to eradicate all child labor in mining,” he concludes. 

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