artisanal gold mining and children _9

“Children washing rugs which are used to separate out gold by pouring mercury on the rugs.”

In May 2012, I went to one of traditional gold mining, community gold mining which located remote and hard to reach areas in West Kalimantan. In the gold mining areas men, women, and children work in artisanal gold mining to make a living. Artisanal or small-scale mining is mining through labor-intensive, low-tech methods, and belongs to the informal sector of economy. Community gold mining is a tradition of several regions in Indonesia. It is estimated that about 12 percent of global gold production comes from artisanal mines.

There are an estimated 10 to 15 million artisanal gold miners worldwide, working in about 70 countries. In some regions, up to 20 percent of miners are children. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are about one million children working in artisanal mining worldwide, and the number is rising. There has been a dramatic rise in the price of gold since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, and artisanal gold mining is likely to remain an attractive economic activity for many people in impoverished, rural areas.

Nearly all children involved in small-scale mining located in remote, hard-to-reach areas, making them difficult to regulate and hindering efforts to assist the children working there.

Cold and dangerous these ‘unofficial’ and unregulated gold mines are no places for children. Due to extreme poverty and lack of access to education, some feel they have little choice but to risk the dangers.

Most artisanal gold miners—adults and children—use mercury to extract gold from the ore, as it is easy to obtain and the cheapest and easiest method available. They amalgamate gold with mercury and then burn the amalgam to separate out the gold, risking their health and their lives. Work with mercury is classified as hazardous under international law and particularly harmful to children and can impair a child’s cognitive development. Mercury poisoning, liver disease and respiratory ailments are just some of the hazards they face.

The health risks are compounded by the environmental hazards, such as the soil, water and air that may be contaminated with toxic substances like mercury or other heavy metals. Clean drinking water, health services and schools are often unavailable, especially in the more remote areas. Even where schools and clinics are available, work obligations often prevent child labourers from enjoying their benefits. In addition, such work often puts children at risk for involvement in the drug and alcohol trade and in prostitution, which are also considered worst forms of child labour.

The good practices from projects of elimination of worst forms of child labour suggest that the best way to assist children in this sector is to work with the children’s own communities, improving the viability, safety and environmental sustainability of the small-scale mining economy, and improving future prospects of the children through better access to good quality education, training and basic services.

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