In a bid to make the occupation safer, University of Victoria earth sciences professor Kevin Telmer, who heads the Artisanal Gold Council, is pushing for mining methods that would use far less mercury.
But mercury is not the only hazard. In the Zamfara region of northern Nigeria, about 400 children have died of lead poisoning from the lead-laden rock that they pulverize in search of gold, and thousands of other children need urgent medical care, according to reports by Human Rights Watch and Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
In Mali, an estimated 20,000 children toil in artisanal gold mines, and injury is common. Of 33 child workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch last year, 21 suffered from regular pain in their limbs, back, head or neck, while others were plagued by coughing and respiratory disease.
“Local officials often benefit from artisanal gold mining and have little interest in addressing child labour,” says Juliane Kippenberg, a Human Rights Watch researcher.
In eastern Congo, mine sites are usually controlled by government soldiers or rebel militias, and the women and children who work there are also vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse.
‘The diggers stay poor and the companies get rich’
As demonstrated by the disaster in Congo this week, hundreds of miners across Africa, including many children, have lost their lives to falls, cave-ins and collapsed tunnels. If they make it through childhood, their odds don’t get much better.
“The work is seriously dangerous,” Felicien Tshilay says as he climbs up a narrow mine shaft at the Karajipopo cobalt mine in Congo, abandoned by a Chinese company last year. “It’s very difficult work,” he says. “Look how hard I’m breathing, and I went down for only a few minutes.”
The rudimentary tunnels can extend for up to 40 metres underground, running the risk of collapsed walls and oxygen shortages. To ventilate the shafts, the miners use improvised generators and plastic tubes, sometimes connected to bicycle wheels.
And it’s not only the conditions of labour that are risky – the compensation can be too. In the village of Kawama, to the south, about 100 men smash rocks with sledgehammers, collecting low-grade copper from an abandoned state mine. Many are the sons of ex-employees of the state mining company, Gécamines, which is now in disarray. They wear ragged clothes, cheap sandals or tattered sneakers, and no safety equipment. Some are barefoot.
Working from dawn to dusk, they can earn up to $10 a day – a considerable sum in Congo. But it should be much more. They are at the mercy of a local buyer, a foreign company that tests the copper grade and sets the price on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
“They cheat us,” says miner Sakila Mav. “So the diggers stay poor and the companies get rich.”
These diggers have a much harder life than did their parents, who had free access to the schools and hospitals of the state mining company.
“We cough from the dust, and our bones are in pain,” says 59-year-old Arnold Kyoni, a miner at the Kawama pit for 13 years. “We’re working in these bad conditions because we have nothing else. We’re fighting for our life.”
Eyes fixed on a fatal glint
Nevertheless, the lure of the potential profit can be irresistible. Relief agencies and private charities try to remove the children from the mines, but it’s frequently a losing battle.
“The ones from the mines are easily distracted – they’re still thinking about the gold,” says Ouidi Naaba, a vocational teacher for school dropouts in Burkina Faso. “Often they don’t show up for class.”
In southern Congo, activists such as Helene Mwaluke try to persuade the children to quit the mining pits. She gently places a hand on Stephane Kapenda’s head. “You have to leave,” she tells him. “Working here is not good for you. You’ll be suffering and coughing. You’ll be smoking marijuana and drinking beer.”
Many of the diggers in Congo smoke marijuana as a crude way of easing the pain and discomfort of their work.
At Kipushi, the police and security guards mostly ignore the illegal labour, making only token efforts to enforce the law. My visit there was interrupted by two green-uniformed guards who rushed toward the child labourers, chasing them away from the edge of the mine buildings, using slingshots to hurl stones at them. (The guards claim that they are careful not to hit the children.)