Getting children out of the gold mines in Burkina Faso

On the rocky ground of Nounou, the artisanal gold mining site, about 3000 people work on a daily basis, 1000 or so of them children. ©UNICEF/Burkina Faso/2016/Garcia

On the rocky ground of Nounou, the artisanal gold mining site, about 3000 people work on a daily basis, 1000 or so of them children. They smash boulders into pebbles and pebbles into grit with makeshift hammers and sticks.

Nearby, a small hill rises from this barren gold field, and atop this hill are hand-dug shafts that plunge 150 feet into the ground. Daouda, 10 already, has had a career as a miner. He has never been to school. Daouda had heard stories of people making money from gold mining and decided to try his luck.

©UNICEF/Burkina Faso/2016/Garcia

Daouda goes back and forth between the surface and the pits. “You have got to get deep into the mining pit by a rope, take what you have been ordered and then go back to the surface,” Daouda says. The inside of the mining pit, is totally dark and extremely hot. Those who go into the mine need to wear a special torch or flashlight on their foreheads to find their way around. “I nearly suffocated inside the pits due to an inadequate supply of oxygen,” he adds. His hands never stop moving — scooping and chipping, chipping and scooping.

©UNICEF/Burkina Faso/2016/Garcia

Mothers with their little children tightly fastened on their back, squat on the ground to claw dirt and rocks into shallow bowls. This rock and dirt is weighed. If gold is found, all the miners will get a little money. If there is no gold at this site, the miners will move to the next place where gold is rumoured to be. Miners earn little for their work — children even less.

With the established artisanal gold mines and villages also come the ore-processing centres where miners take large sacks or rocks and pebbles to be ground into powder. This powder will be processed, usually with mercury, and further refined into gold nuggets at another location.

The ore-crushing machines are makeshift contraptions cobbled together with pulleys, belts, grinding plates, and smoke-belching diesel engines. And while it takes the strength of a man to empty the bags of rock into the crushers, children do most of the other work. They sharpen metal grinding wheels without eye protection; scoop and bag fine powder without dust masks; and fetch and carry just inches from pulleys, belts, and spinning motors with the power to rip and shred anything caught in their works.

The pounding and clanking of the crushers are deafening. The machines spew constant clouds of dust, which coats the children from their heads to their bare feet. Their coughing is constant. Worst forms of child labour is against the law in Burkina Faso. And according to ILO, mining is one of the worst forms of child labour because of the risks of injury and death and the long-term health consequences from constant exposure to dust, toxic chemicals, and heavy manual labour. The list of documented ills includes permanent lung damage caused by inhaling pulverized minerals, muscular and skeletal injuries, hearing loss, accidental blinding, and mercury poisoning with its attendant neurological damage. And then there is the fact that when children are working, they are not in school.

©UNICEF/Burkina Faso/2016/Garcia

“Burkinabe boys and girls are lured to the artisanal gold mines in the hopes of a better life, but find themselves stuck in a dead-end cycle of danger and despair. You cannot eliminate child labour in a community when the income of the family is so low,” said Marc Rubin, UNICEF Burkina Faso Resident Representative. “You need to tackle the issue of the livelihoods for the parents, help raise awareness about child labour laws and build government capacity to monitor and enforce the laws. In order to avoid exploitative child labour we must offer schooling, financing, vocational training and alternative employment.” He adds.

UNICEF supports the Government and local NGOs in providing education and economic opportunities for children working in 40 artisanal gold mining sites and craft quarries spread over five regions of Burkina Faso (Sahel Centre-North, West, Central and Central Plateau). Thanks to the contribution of the German National Committee for UNICEF which mainly funds the project. Jointly with other UNICEF National Committees (Slovenia and The Netherlands from 2009–2012), these contributions allowed the removal, of 25,000 children from mines sites since 2009 with education, psychosocial, vocational training and social reintegration support.