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A very young girl breaks up rock at an abandoned state-owned copper mine in the city of Kipushi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, May 10, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
A very young girl breaks up rock at an abandoned state-owned copper mine in the city of Kipushi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, May 10, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)


Young and dying: the scandal of artisanal mining Add to ...

But just a few metres away, where hundreds of people are working in the pit, the guards do not dare enter. They say they would be attacked by a furious mob if they got too close.

In one corner of the pit, Mbuyi Kazadi and her children are digging up rocks and breaking them into gravel to sell to construction companies. Her skinny five-year-old son, Trija, toddles around the pit and tries to help his mother by gathering rocks in a pot that he can barely lift.

Ms. Kazadi has been working here for 10 years now, from dawn to dusk, taking just two weeks off work when one of her babies is born. She earns the equivalent of a dollar a day. “I pray to God that I will leave the quarries,” she says. “If I could do anything else, I would do it. I would like the children to go to school and not get sick.”

She and her children often fall ill from the dust and pollution at the pit, but she cannot afford hospital care. Instead she begs for free pills at a pharmacy. “All of my children cough at night,” she says. “It’s very hard work. We work in the sun and the rain.”

Her five children are barefoot and grimy. They have never been to school. Her 16-month-old daughter is slung on her back, while her other children are collecting rocks in tattered old buckets and pounding them into smaller rocks with crude homemade hammers.

Sometimes the police raid the pit, forcing her to flee. Once, a policeman grabbed one of her children and took him to a police station. She had to pay a bribe to get her child back.

At the end of each day, she sells her buckets of gravel to truckers from construction and mining companies. If she can sell five buckets, she earns a dollar for the day’s labour.

“If there are no trucks, we go home without eating.”


The Canadian connection

The Kipushi mine, which operated from 1924 to 1993, is today owned by a joint-venture company, KICO, in which Vancouver-based mining company Ivanplats Ltd. purchased a 68-per-cent stake last year, seeking the mine’s untapped zinc resources.

Ivanplats is headed by Robert Friedland, the controversial Canadian entrepreneur who made a fortune from the Voisey’s Bay nickel deposit in Labrador and has many other mining interests in Africa and Asia.

In a statement sent to The Globe and Mail, Ivanplats acknowledged that KICO has the mining rights to the waste-rock heaps and tailings piles where the children dig. But it said it does not yet control their daily use – surface rights are still held by Gecamines. Ivanplats is likely to gain those rights by 2015, when the underground mine is expected to return to production.

The company said the child labourers are “a serious concern” and “symptomatic, in part, of wider social and economic conditions.” It added that its plans to reopen the mine would create many new jobs, and that the company is assessing the “extent, impact and hazards of unregulated artisanal mining” on its site.

In the meanwhile, UNICEF child-protection specialist Maxime Germain is trying to persuade families to quit the mines in exchange for start-up business subsidies. “It breaks my heart,” he says. “They are no better or worse than any other children – they are just unlucky to be here.”

Mr. Germain and his UNICEF colleagues have helped hundreds of children and parents escape the mines with small grants to use, for example, for welding equipment or sewing machines.

Father of six Kazadi Kalala worked for 10 years in the gravel pits, crushing rocks into sand, working with two of his children and watching them become ill. UNICEF and its local partners gave him $350 so he could set up a small shop in his house. Now, his modest income is enough to send his children to school.

Similar programs have been tried in Latin America, Nepal and Tanzania, often using a combination of education, grassroots campaigning and small loans. They are innovative, but make only a tiny dent in the problem.

Mr. Germain admits that the UNICEF program might even have the self-defeating effect of luring more people to the mines in hopes of getting grants. “For every 400 kids you take out of the mining site, there are 400 more to replace them,” he says. “We need to go deeper to fight the structure of the problem.”

The solution, he believes, will have to come from broader economic and income-disparity reforms.

“The real problem,” he says, “is the poverty.”

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