• Men in the river stream

    Cartago & Puerto Berrío, Colombia

    A Colombian sand miner dives under the water to extract sand from the bottom of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • A Colombian sand miner dives under the water to extract sand from the bottom of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • A Colombian sand miner loads the extracted sand into a car on the bank of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • Colombian sand miners cross the river Magdalena in a boat to extract the sand from the river bank in Puerto Berrío, Colombia.

  • A Colombian sand miner unloads a bucket full of gravel into his boat anchored in the middle of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • Colombian sand miners, using a wheelbarrow, unload sand from the boat on the bank of the river Magdalena in Puerto Berrío.

  • A Colombian sand miner unloads the extracted sand from his boat on the bank of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • Colombian sand miners unload buckets full of sand into their boat anchored in the middle of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • A Colombian sand miner climbs up the anchored boat while working in the middle of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • A Colombian sand miner works on the reinforcement of the bank of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • A Colombian sand miner dives under the water to extract sand from the bottom of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • Boats of Colombian sand miners are seen tied up at the bank of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • A Colombian sand miner holds the boat while diving under the water to extract sand from the bottom of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • Colombian sand miners load the extracted sand into a car on the bank of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • A Colombian sand miner dives under the water to extract sand from the bottom of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • A crumpled hat of a Colombian sand miner is seen on the bottom of a wooden boat anchored close the bank of the river La Vieja in Cartago, Colombia.

  • Copyright © 2017 Jan Sochor

Men in the river stream Sand mining in Colombia

Cartago & Puerto Berrío, Colombia

February - December 2013

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