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In narrow, unstable underground shafts, exposed to toxic substances, they risk their lives every day working for a pittance and the hope of a brighter future. These miners, sometimes younger than ten years old, work in small-scale gold mines in Burkina Faso. In ore extraction, crushing and washing in mercury, child laborers are used throughout the mining process. Through its child protection program in Burkina Faso, Terre des hommes (Tdh) helps child miners leave this world of suffering by supporting their education and vocational training.
Switzerland is currently the world’s hub for gold trading: more than two thirds of global production passes through Switzerland for refining. As a highly valued precious metal, gold is a delight for jewelry lovers and is found in millions of electronic devices around the world. However, the lucrative market for gold hides a darker reality.
The hell within small-scale mines
In fact, gold mining is subject to much controversy. Deplorable working conditions, lack of safety standards and polluting operating methods that endanger the health of workers and surrounding communities are found at many sites around the world. Heavy reliance on child labor is commonplace. This sad reality is found in small-scale mining Burkina Faso.
The majority of children working in small-scale mines in the region of Zorgho are from surrounding villages. But it is not uncommon to find children from more distant regions or even from other countries such as Togo, Benin and Ghana. Some are accompanied by their parents; others are all alone. Very often they have dropped out of school, and in many cases they have never even set foot in a school.
In general, these children are at the gold mining sites on their own initiative. They may have followed a parent who is also there, or they may have responded to recruiting by the owner of the "hole”. Most often they work for a third party who decides what to pay them.
Children used throughout the entire mining process
It is the boys – generally the older ones – who dig in the tunnels to extract the ore without the benefit of any safety equipment. The work is physically demanding, very dangerous and can have lasting health consequences. Mine shaft cave-ins are not uncommon and cause many deaths.
Grinding and crushing of the ore brought up to the surface is also quite harmful to the child laborers involved. These tasks are sometimes assigned to very young children or girls, despite the demanding physical requirements. The resulting dust, which is very toxic, can be found everywhere and often leads to serious illnesses.
The next step in the mining process is not any better in terms of work conditions. To extract the precious metal from the ore, the miners use mercury or cyanide, two extremely toxic substances. Children are frequently exposed to the fumes from these products. Furthermore, these dangerous substances are often are not adequately recovered after their usage. Instead, they end up in the soil or streams, creating disastrous pollution that threatens the health of local inhabitants.
Mining sites also involve a range of related activities such as water transport and food provisioning. Unfortunately, among these activities is prostitution. Girls are often sexually exploited in the areas around gold mines.
For a brighter future
Terre des hommes is active in the gold mines in Zorgho as well as in gold mines in the north of the country at Essakane, Gorol and Gangaol. Tdh works to protect children and help them find an alternative to working in the mines. The program targets a broad range of age groups with responses appropriate for their needs.
Terre des hommes and its partners support the education of children living in the mining sites and surrounding villages. The project ensures the payment of educational fees and the procurement of school supplies. It supports local educational institutions, including community kindergartens
(known as Bisongo in the local language). It organizes psychosocial and recreational activities for the benefit of school children.
Our Foundation also supports vocational training for young people working at the sites as well as the search for alternatives to laboring in the gold mines. Job centers offer apprenticeships (mechanics, carpentry, sewing, etc.) mainly targeted for 15-17 years olds.
The project also seeks to empower young people and mothers to develop independent economic activities (farming, small business, gardening, etc.) by providing them with technical and financial support.
All these activities have a single aim: to allow children to escape the dangers to their health and development and build a better future for themselves.