Saturday, 31 August 2013

Human Rights Watch reports on child labour in the Tanzanian gold mining industry.

The US based NGO Human Rights Watch published a report into the use of child labour in Tanzanian artisanal gold mines on Wednesday 28 August 2013. The report found children as young as five years old are widely involved in the industry, and face risks relating to digging in deep pits, operating machinery, carrying heavy loads, manually breaking up rock, exposure to (highly toxic) mercury and mercury fumes and sexual exploitation. A high proportion of children employed in the industry were orphans or otherwise vulnerable, and many were missing education in oder to work.

Four-year-old girl plays in an amalgamation pond contaminated with mercury while adults process gold at a site in the Shinyanga Region of Tanzania. Zama Coursen-Neff/Human Rights Watch.

Tanzania is one of the poorest and least developed countries in Africa, despite considerable mineral resources, with about 67.9% of the population living on less than US$1.25 per day. As of 2011 the country was the fourth largest producer of gold on the continent, earning US$2.1 billion in mineral exports, 95% of came from six large gold mines. However around 10% of the gold mined in the country originates in small, artisanal mines, which are thought to employ around 800 000 people (the difference being due to much of the produce of artisanal mines being smuggled out of the country, earning no official revenue.

Artisanal mines employ small numbers of people to extract gold. Many have no legal standing, since mining permits are expensive, require detailed geographical information that small artisanal miners often cannot provide, and cannot be obtained in areas where permits have already been granted to other parties; much of country's gold fields have been granted, at least in theory to large multinational mining companies, though not all of these permits have been taken up by the permit holders. Small mine operators typically lease an area of land from a local landowner, often somebody who has traditional rights to the land which may not be recognized by the central government.

Map showing the areas of Tanzania where gold mining occurs (yellow) and where Human Rights Watch carried out the study (dashed). Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch found children working in pit mines up to 70 m deep, both digging and removing material for processing. The work is physically demanding and accidents were common, with many children reporting they were troubled by past injuries. Many pits were unstable and cave-ins occurred frequently, with potentially fatal results. Mining regulations in Tanzania require that pit mines have a ladder for ascent and descent, located clear of hoisting equipment used to move ore and equipment, but in many artisanal mines children were either climbing down the sides of the pits or using ropes to ascend and descend, with injuries from falling common. Gas incidents were common in mines, both from pockets of gas encountered when digging, and from fumes from pumps used to prevent pits from flooding. In addition silicosis (miner's lung) was widespread. This condition is caused by a build up of silica (quartz) in the lungs, which the body cannot expel, and can cause severe breathing problems, as well as making its victims vulnerable to lung infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. One of the most dangerous activities within the mines was operating drilling equipment, usually without any form of safety equipment, which often resulted in injuries from flying debris.

A miner lowers down a deep pit by holding onto a rope in a small-scale mining site in Mbeya Region. Elizabeth Maginga/Human Rights Watch.


Ore is typically removed from artisanal mines in sacks, which may weigh up to 60 kg. This is an activity in which children of both sexes are widely employed, leading to frequent injuries as well as skeletal deformation and accelerated joint deterioration.

Once extracted the ore is broken up manually with hammers. This is a common form of employment for children, and is strenuous, physically demanding labour, which often results in injuries. Some mines use a simple type of grinding machine called a ball-mill, in which the ore is placed inside a cylinder with steel balls, then rotated either manually or mechanically in order to grind it up. This equipment was also linked to accidents in which children had been injured.

Boy crushing gold ore on a gold rush site in Shinyanga Region. Juliane Kippenberg/Human Rights Watch.


Once the ore is broken up it is concentrated by washing it through a sluice, then separated by amalgamating it with mercury. This was thought to be the most dangerous part of the process, due to the highly toxic nature of both mercury and mercury fumes. The concentrated ore is mixed with mercury to remove the gold, then the resulting amalgam of the two metals burned to remove the mercury, effectively evaporating it off, resulting in large amounts of fumes. There are means of extracting gold from ore without mercury, but this is the simplest method on a low technology base.

Mercury is a highly potent neurotoxin, and can cause a variety of other health and developmental problems in children; it is considered to be particularly harmful to infants and fetuses. The fumes are persistent in the atmosphere and can travel long distances, which places those not directly involved in the amalgamation process at risk, since the process is often carried out in residential areas, and close to streams from which drinking water is extracted and fish are caught and eaten. Few healthcare workers in Tanzania, and practically none in rural areas, are trained in recognizing mercury poisoning, suggesting there might be a hidden epidemic of cases.

Gold processing at a trader’s workshop in Geita Region. Juliane Kippenberg/Human Rights Watch.


Tanzanian law requires that mercury be used in a retort, which captures around 95% of the fumes for recycling. However few people in mining camps had ever seen such a device, let alone used one. The importation and trade in mercury is also, in theory, controlled in Tanzania, with traders being obliged to provide details of end-users of legally traded mercury, in order to facilitate government inspections. However Human Rights Watch found evidence that mercury was entering the country illegally from Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia, as well as mercury derived from dental amalgam and hospital equipment in Tanzania and Kenya being traded in mining settlements. It is thought that Tanzania produces around 45 tonnes of mercury fumes per year.

Human Rights Watch also found that children, particularly girls, were vulnerable to sexual exploitation in mining camps, either though being pressurized into becoming sex workers or through more direct sexual assaults. A study by Plan International found that 19.2% of children working at mining camps in Tanzania had been subject to sexual assaults. Those involved in sex work faced a particularly high risk of contracting HIV, with a 5.6% rate of infection in the general Tanzanian population between 15 and 49 years old, while female food and recreational workers in the Geita and Shinyanga mining districts had a 41.8% rate of infection and female bar workers in Mbeya region had a 68% rate of infection. Condoms were available in mining camps, but sex education was almost entirely absent, so they were seldom used.

It was also found that a high proportion of children involved in the artisanal mining industry were either missing out on education completely or falling behind due to the interference of  the work with their studies. In theory all children in Tanzania are entitled to, and required to attend, free primary education. However in practice schools often charge for education, meaning that the poorest families cannot afford to send children, and even where this is not the case, the most vulnerable children, particularly orphans, may well need the income from mining work to fulfill basic needs (such as food), and thus choose the work over education. The situation is even worse for older children, as Tanzania only requires that secondary education be available, not that it be free or mandatory.

A gold-processing site in a residential area in Mbeya Region. Janine Morna/Human Rights Watch

See also Protests over environmental problems at Indian-owned Mozambique coal mineAfrican Barrick Gold sued over deaths at Tanzanian mineAmnesty International reports on the mining industry in Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of CongoPregnant woman killed in rioting over Tanzania gas pipeline and At least 20 miners killed in North Kivu mine collapse.

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