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Digging for gold, children work in harsh conditions, paid with bags of dirt

By Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

Samba Diarra, 15, journeyed 200 miles to live in a plastic hut alone and work in an artisanal gold mine in Mali. The teen came to the mine to help support his five younger brothers and sisters.

“The main reason I left home is to help my parents and sending them money is my main goal,” Diarra said.

Diarra’s parents can’t afford  to send him to school because he has to support his younger siblings.  He is one of at least 20,000 children working in Mali’s artisanal mines.

Mali is Africa’s third largest gold producer. Artisanal mines rely on heavy human labor and little mechanization.  People throughout West Africa are flocking to work in the primitive pits. 

“Globally, we’ve seen an increase with the number of artisanal gold miners because of the rise of gold prices, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to better living conditions,” said Juliane Kippenberg who helped author a Human Rights Watch report on Mali’s mines. 

The skyrocketing price of gold has led to a rush on the precious metal in the United States and throughout the world, but some of the mining that’s helping feed the world’s craving involves child labor and a dangerous process involving mercury.

Approximately 100,000 to 200,000 people in Mali are working in artisanal mines, according to the Human Rights Watch report.  Kippenberg told NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel that 20 to 30 percent of the workforce in African artisanal mines is child labor.

The report entitled, “A Poisonous Mix: Child Labor, Mercury and Artisanal Gold Mining in Mali,” details abysmal working conditions.

 “There couldn’t be a bigger contrast between the situation of a 7-year-old or a 14, 15-year-old working day in and day out in the very harsh conditions of these mines and the beautiful world of jewelry somewhere in Switzerland or the U.S. or elsewhere,” Kippenberg said.

The children working in the mines, some as young as six years old, help dig shafts with pickaxes, lift and carry heavy bags of ore and pan the gold with an amalgamation process involving mercury. 

“Not only is it hard work and then you’re tired from it, but it is hard work that everyday gives you pain: headaches, back pain, joint aches and it will create long-term spinal injury for some of these children who are carrying very heavy loads and they are very small,” Kippenberg said.

Diarra spent his first day pulling up gold ore that was mined by men working deep underground.  At the end of his first day, he was paid with a bag of dirt.  Gold is currently trading at around $1742 an ounce.

“After I wash and refine it, I’ll get paid for the gold that might be inside,” he said.

Some children working in the mines never get paid. Those who do, get just a few dollars a week.

Diarra still has dreams of a life away from the mines.

“I would like to study if I have the opportunity, I would also like to be a footballer,” he said.

Kippenberg said that it will be hard for Diarra to leave the mines.

“The sad news is that he is not going to be able to realize his dreams.  In almost all of these situations where children come here to work by themselves, they are terribly exploited and will probably end up working in artisanal gold mines for the rest of their lives or for very long periods, making, eking, out a living,” Kippenberg said.

Malian law actually bans child labor in artisanal mines, but the law is not heavily enforced. One miner told Rock Center that he simply can’t afford the fees to send his children to school so instead they work with him.

Diata Lissoko, the traditional  leader of one of the mines said, “With this kind of physical labor, life is short.”

Lissoko said that just two days prior to Rock Center’s visit, a young man had suffocated deep in the mine.

“It was 30, 40 meters deep.  When you descend a mine that deep, there is no oxygen down there, so if you breathe in the gas, you are killed immediately,” Lissoko said.

Others are dying slowly from toxic mercury vapors.  To speed up the refining process, workers are mixing mercury with the crushed ore.  The mercury adheres to the gold flakes.  Then the mixture is burned. Those vapors are the most toxic.  Women and children often are in charge of panning the gold and often use the mercury in their backyards in the middle of their villages.

 “Working with mercury in a residential area is a particularly bad practice because it affects so many people,” said Kippenberg of Human Rights Watch.  “They will be exposed to mercury poisoning.  Just to give you an idea, it’s not something that happens very quickly, but people will begin to have coordination problems, memory problems in high doses. It can lead to kidney failure, heart problems and it can even kill people.”

Approximately 12 percent of the world’s gold is born from the grueling process of artisanal mining, Kippenberg said.

“It’s not the majority of the gold, but at the same time, it’s a significant proportion,” Kippenberg said.

The gold is sold to middlemen and eventually ends up in places like Dubai and Switzerland where it is melted  and mixed with gold from large scale mines before it’s turned into jewelry worn throughout the world.

“Even if it is a long, long supply train, at the end of the day, it is the gold from these artisanal mines in Mali and other parts of the world that is exported and then goes to the world’s markets and is turned into jewelry,” Kippenberg said.  “So, yes, there is a direct link between the people who wear the jewelry and buy it and the refiners, the big international companies who trade the gold globally and those who work in these mines, the depths of these shafts, who risk their lives in doing so.”