With his Hulk cartoon T-shirt and his solemn face, Stephane Kapenda looks even younger and smaller than his 12 years. He knows he shouldn’t be here. But for years he has hauled tainted soil from this toxic waste pit into dirty pools of water so that he can search for bits of copper.
“It’s bad,” he says quietly. “I would like to leave it and go to school.”
Asked what is the worst thing about the work, he thinks for a moment and then whispers: “The sickness.”
Twice, the effects of heavy-metal contamination have been so severe that he needed hospital treatment. Yet he keeps at it, alongside his siblings, to scrounge a tiny income for his parents – impoverished farmers who could not otherwise survive.
About 200 to 300 children toil daily in this vast open pit, a bleak wasteland outside a copper and zinc mine at Kipushi in the southeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near the Zambian border.
“It’s poisoning them,” says a South African engineer, shaking his head in dismay, as he pumps out water from the mine. The site was abandoned two decades ago by state mining company Gécamines, but now it is being prepared to go back into production by the Canadian-controlled consortium that recently acquired it. The new owners say they are deeply worried by the child labour and are assessing what to do.
Stephane and Kipushi are just the tip of a widespread phenomenon. More than 40,000 children, according to one survey, are working in informal mines and quarries in three provinces of southern and central Congo.
Across the country, about 800,000 children are estimated to be working in the hundreds of state-owned mines that were abandoned as Congo fell into corruption and chaos under kleptocratic dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and his successors.
Women and children are not legally permitted to work in small mining here. But a government official admits it happens “clandestinely,” often “with the complicity of the police.”
I’ve been stumbling across similar scenes in my travels in Africa and Asia for many years. I’ve seen children dressed in rags in Mongolia, competing with bulldozers for a tiny share of the gold in giant pits. I’ve watched villagers digging deep hazardous shafts for gold in the remote hills of northern Tanzania. I’ve seen adolescent girls scraping for flecks of gold in small pits under the burning sun of Burkina Faso.
Globally, the number of child miners is probably more than a million. Hazardous underage labour is banned in most countries, yet groups such as the International Labour Organization have struggled in vain to prohibit it. That United Nations agency launched a campaign against children working in mining in 2005, calling it one of the world’s worst forms of labour.
“There is no justification – poverty included – for children to work in this sector,” the ILO said. “It is literally back-breaking work.”
Clawing out a living
This is the “artisanal mining” sector – a bureaucratic euphemism for the job of scavenging, digging and clawing a living from the harsh earth with bare hands and crude tools.
Its constant dangers were illustrated tragically this week when at least 60 artisanal miners were killed in an accident in a rebel-controlled region of northeastern Congo. They had reportedly rushed to be the first to the bottom of an abandoned gold pit, about 100 metres underground – far deeper than safety rules permitted – and the shaft collapsed, burying them.
Yet today artisanal mining is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries. As mineral prices soar to record levels, a tattered army of unemployed workers and farmers trudges to the mines, willing to accept the frightening risks. About 15 million to 20 million people labour in artisanal gold mining alone in 60 countries worldwide. Their incomes range from perhaps a dollar a day to much higher payoffs for bigger teams on luckier days.
Big mining companies often prosecute the artisanal miners or evict them from their land. But other times they use them as an unofficial exploration team, tipping them off to new deposits. And their yield finds its way to commercial jewellery stores, accounting for 15 per cent of global gold production, according to the Artisanal Gold Council, a Canadian-based non-profit organization that tries to help the workers.
The toll of death and injury is shockingly high. The routine use of mercury to extract gold from crushed ore, in particular, can cause permanent damage to the central nervous system. In Colombia, where more than half the gold is produced by about 200,000 small-scale miners, thousands of children suffer intoxication from the dangerously high levels of mercury gas in mining towns.