Child Labor in Burkina Faso's Gold Rush

The broadcast aired July 10, 2013, on the PBS NewsHour.

Gold production has more than doubled in Burkina Faso in recent years. But that boom has led to a increase in the employment of child laborers in small, artisanal mines.

Photojournalist Larry C. Price visited several communities to document the conditions.


GWEN IFILL: Next, the high cost of mining for precious metals.

A gold rush has brought new opportunities to the desperately poor nation of Burkina Faso in West Africa. But along with riches have come perils, especially for the young children who work in the dangerous mines.

Photojournalist Larry C. Price, in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, recently visited several mining communities to document the conditions.

Our report is narrated by Hari Sreenivasan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This is Theophile. He's tossing shards of ore into a bucket 150 feet below ground. His eyes are glassy and his movements are rote, trained by repetition and circumstance. Down in this cramped, humid space, Theophile's small body moves about more freely than an adult's would.

LARRY C. PRICE, Photojournalist: I thought I was near the bottom, and then I realized there's another 40 or 50 feet to go.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A fact photojournalist Larry Price found out for himself as he descended the shaft to meet the boy.

LARRY C. PRICE: This shaft is about four to five feet in diameter, and at its narrowest, it's probably less than 28 inches.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Above ground is the small mining village of Kollo, one of the many boomtowns that's sprung up over the last few years in Burkina Faso.

Slightly larger than Colorado in acreage and among the poorest countries in the world, this landlocked nation of 18 million people is a relative newcomer to the gold trade. But the precious metal used in everything from jewelry to electronics to the basis of currencies the world over has in short order overtaken cotton to become the country's top export commodity.

A sizable chunk of that gold comes from small-scale, or artisanal, mines, like these. And much of that work is done by children. The U.N.'s international labor organization estimates that children account for 30 percent to 50 percent of the small-scale miners working in the African Sahel region, which includes Burkina Faso and Niger. But the issue is not restricted to the continent.

ERIC BIEL, U.S. Labor Department: It's a significant problem around the world.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Eric Biel is acting associate deputy undersecretary for international affairs of the U.S. Labor Department, which tracks child labor violations across the globe. Its latest report lists Burkina Faso among 19 countries engaged in the worst forms of child labor, and Biel says the mines there present considerable challenges.

ERIC BIEL: It's a multifaceted situation. You have got these boom-towns that are being set up where both children from Burkina Faso are leaving school and being employed there, but also children are being trafficked across borders.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It's illegal to employ children under the age of 16 in Burkina Faso, and Biel says the government has shown it wants to stop the practice. But with an estimated 200,000 mining sites, many in remote areas like these, and a strong economic pull, enforcement has been difficult.

The average worker in Burkina Faso earns less than $2 a day. Meanwhile, a family employed in artisanal gold mining can earn between $5 and $40 a day, depending on the mine. That's led to many parents pulling their own children from school to help in the mines.

GANNO DAOUDA, General Secretary to Mayor's Cffice, Tiebele (through translator): They say, if gold is found somewhere, it's hard to calm the ardor of the gold diggers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ganno Daouda is the general secretary to the mayor's office in the nearby town of Tiebele. Since 2011, he says he's watched the Kollo mine steadily grow to employ around 1,000 people. But with this new economic opportunity, he says there have come many problems.

GANNO DAOUDA (through translator): The kids prefer quick cash, putting aside their future. It is a serious problem for us because children are always on the site.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Karim Sawadogo was once a goat herder at his home in the north and came to this mine in the southwest with his uncle. Barefoot, he cooks, fetches water and climbs down in the mines.He thinks he's 9 years old, but isn't sure.

In general, young children like Karim carry out the more menial tasks at the sites, transporting water and heavy loads of ore, digging pits and breaking up rocks with primitive hammers. The jobs down in the pits are typically reserved for teenagers, with only tree limbs to brace the mine walls.The risk to them is real.

GANNO DAOUDA (through translator):The site doesn't respect any rule. Oftentimes, there are deadly collapses.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The unregulated nature of this work makes reliable statistics hard to come by. But, as uncertain as the pits are, the jobs in the processing areas, where the ore is pulverized, are possibly more dangerous.

Sputtering diesel engines power makeshift pulleys, grinding plates and belts used to crush the ore into a fine powder that's bagged to be treated later. Along with the hazards of breathing this fine dust comes the potential for losing a finger or limb.

Children also help pan the powder with liquid mercury, which binds to gold. This amalgam in turn is burned to separate the gold, releasing dangerous vapors.

JOE AMON, Human Rights Watch: It's a gamble. People are trading off the money that they can make now selling gold with potentially their health and their lives.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Joe Amon directs the Health and Human Rights program at Human Rights Watch, which recently studied this same issue in neighboring Mali.

JOE AMON: Children sometimes have exposure to both directly, to touching the mercury, and then also to the vapors. And that can be if they're working on the gold itself or if they're simply around the family compound where the gold is being isolated with mercury.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Amon says the effects of mercury poisoning are both difficult to diagnose and very serious. They include neurological damage, impaired vision, respiratory conditions, kidney failure, long-term mental disabilities and even death.

Meanwhile, the constant dust around the mines can settle inside the lungs of these children, causing permanent damage.

GANNO DAOUDA (through translator): There are a lot of health-related problems. Our nurses here are overwhelmed by cases of lung disease caused by dust, as these people do not have good protection.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Water is scarce in this drought-stricken country, especially in rural areas, so children use the contaminated cooling water from the machinery to wash their faces and brush their teeth.

After 12- to 14-hour shifts, they try to sleep near the deafening roar of nearby machines or over an open mine pit. It's a rare occasion, perhaps a game of foosball, when they act like the children they are. Artisanal mining wasn't always so popular in Burkina Faso. In 1985, the country suffered a prolonged drought and the resulting famine pushed many families off their small farms and down into the mines for work.

Gold fetched $300 an ounce in 1985. Today, it is more than $1,200 an ounce, fueling such rudimentary forms of mining in Burkina Faso and elsewhere.

While it's clear there's gold leaving these boomtowns, it is much harder to say where that gold may ultimately end up.Burkina Faso's porous borders and large network of middlemen mean a nugget from these mines can be easily combined with other sources.

The U.S. Labor Department says this makes tracing and stopping the trade of child-mined gold extremely difficult.

ERIC BIEL: It's not something where it's as easy to say, well, if we stop the demand for gold, we can trace that back to what's happening on the ground in Burkina Faso. So this is one where we really have to start with the supply, with the circumstance on the ground, and try to get at the root causes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: To that end, in December, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a $5 million grant over four years to combat child labor in Burkina Faso.

ERIC BIEL: We can't, as the U.S. government, solve the problem.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Biel admits that relatively minor sum won't end the practice, but he says it's part of a broader effort.

ERIC BIEL: There's no ability through one grant, whether it's $5 million or something else, to address the whole problem. But you can begin to get at some of the root causes and through awareness-raising and so forth hopefully begin to make a difference.

JOE AMON: It's not going to disappear overnight.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Joe Amon of Human Rights Watch agrees, and says education can go a long way towards limiting children's exposure to the worst risks.

JOE AMON: Many of the families that we talked to had never heard that mercury was the problem, that it had any impact at all. And so at the very fundamental level, there needs to be some education that's done.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Back at this mining camp in the southwest, an interpreter asks Karim Sawadogo what he wants to do with his life. Karim says he came here to make money, and that his dream is to make enough so that he never has to go down into the narrow mines again.