The Philippines produced more than 1 million troy ounces of gold in 2011, ranking 18th in world production. More than half of that gold came from small-scale mines, according to the government's Bureau of Mines. In these mines, many of them illegal, entire families, including very young children, dig, pan, crush and haul rock. Adults and older teenagers extract the gold from rock by hand, usually using mercury in a process that contaminates the land, water and food supply and exposes them to highly toxic mercury fumes. Tools are primitive. Children risk injury and death and face long-term health problems caused by back-breaking labor, exposure to dust and chemicals and, worst of all, mercury poisoning.

In compressor mining—the most dangerous of all mining practices—older teenagers and slight young men descend in deep pits filled to the surface with muddy water. Breathing through a tube attached to a compressor on the surface, they work in the watery darkness, filling bags of ore that are hauled to the surface. Sometimes miners die when the sides of the pits collapse, and they are buried alive.

Child labor is against the law in the Philippines, but is nonetheless rampant. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that more than 18,000 women and young children work in the Philippine gold mines. The U.N. International Labor Organization is trying to eliminate child labor, but without the support of local officials, it is an almost impossible task.

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Larry C. Price is an award-winning documentary photographer and multimedia journalist based in Dayton, Ohio. Larry spent much of his career in newspaper journalism as a photographer and an editor. A...