Perched on the edge of a mine shaft, Joel Sawadogo, 13, readies the fragile plastic lamp strapped to his forehead with an elastic band as he prepares to lower himself into the darkness.
He is one of hundreds of children and young people working at the Nobsin mines, about an hour’s drive from Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, who every day risk their lives in the search for gold in the impoverished west African nation.
Child mining has become a growing problem in Burkina Faso, where 60 percent of the population is under 25. A mining boom in recent years has made the country Africa’s fourth-largest gold producer, where exports of the yellow metal account for almost a fifth of economic output.
Joel, who started working at the mines two years ago, makes a meagre income from the backbreaking work. Sometimes it’s 5,000 CFA francs (7.6 euros, $10.5), on a good day twice that, but often nothing at all. “Down there, it’s really damp,” he said, scratching a filthy arm. He hopes one day to find “less painful work” but “mostly, I think about what I could earn”.
Burkina Faso’s government estimates a tonne of gold was brought out of the ground by small-scale miners last year — official estimates say it could be double that — compared to the 32 tonnes mined legally.
Part of that was dug by children. The UN Children’s Fund estimates that between half a million and 700,000 adolescents and youngsters are caught up in the mining sector in the nation of some 17 million people.
– ‘Sometimes it’s scary’ –
At the illegal mine, even breathing is hard in the windy, arid landscape.
Children, many barefoot, scramble into small rectangular holes between 20 to 30 metres (65 to 100 feet) deep to pound away at the rock face.
Thuds and muffled voices drift up to the surface, where fellow workers take turns to haul up broken stones in plastic cans. Other teams further pounded the stones, sifting and hoping to find gold.
At 15, Hamidou is a short stripling of a lad, wincing and weary as he wrenches a splinter out of his foot. But he says that mining is still better than working in the nearby village where he lives.
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