Young and dying: the scandal of artisanal mining [in Africa] – by Geoffrey York (Globe and Mail – August 18, 2012)

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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.

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