Artisanal (unmechanised) sand mining is an ancient mining technique used to obtain sand for construction purposes. Depending on the natural conditions (strength of the stream, depth of the river, richness of the sand deposit), together with the sand miners' physical condition (powerful lungs), different working methods are employed. However, the material is always extracted in metal buckets (10 kilograms per load), either by standing on the river bottom and searching for sand by feet, or, diving up to 3-5 meters deep using a long wooden plank with steps. A cargo canoe may be fully loaded in an hour or two of physically demanding work.
As the river stream constantly brings new layers of sand, the small-scale artisanal sand mining has always been providing a modest but sustainable livelihood for hundreds of sand miners (areneros) living on the banks of the Colombian rivers. Nowadays, although different kinds of material are still manually extracted from the river bottom (sand, gravel or pebbles), the artisanal sand mining struggles with competition with highly effective dredging machines which irreversibly transform the river environment.
The vast majority of sand miners work freelance, having just a bucket, a shovel and an old wooden canoe. Due to the long working stays in cold water, most of them suffer from diseases of the musculoskeletal system. Those who dive, complain about the lingering pain in the ears. Although their daily salary does not exceed 15-20 US dollars, the sand miners are hard-working men who are proud of their profession, valuing their work freedom above all, and usually, as long as their health and strength permit, they keep facing the river stream every day.
Photography by Jan Sochor
Sound recorded by Jan Sochor