The sun has not yet risen when Haji and Mosi, respectively 14 and 12, leave home to reach the mine. On their way they meet Juma, who is 12 too. They joke and talk about their favourite team’s shirt they are going to buy with their week’s pay. In a few minutes they will plunge straight down into the bowels of the earth.
They will be digging in the mine tunnels for hours without light nor air. They will also have to carry heavy bags through the tunnels: an exhausting work for their age with serious risks for their health. A recent Human Rights Watch report denounced the exploitation of thousands of children working in gold mines in Tanzania. The report focuses on the provinces, in both the northern and southern areas of the country, of Geita, Shinyanga, and Mbeya. These are not far from the Lake Victoria region and close to the Zambia and Malawi borders.
The victims of mining labour are teenagers and also children as young as eight years old. The condemnation is based on Human Rights Watch visits to 11 mining sites. Over 200 workers were interviewed. According to the report, “Thousands of children work in small-scale gold mines, most of which are unlicensed. The employment of children in dangerous mining work is one of the worst forms of child labour under international agreements, to which Tanzania is a party.”
Mercury is the main problem. Child labourers, as well as children living close to mining sites, are at serious risk of mercury poisoning. Entire villages are affected.An expert on mercury from the Tanzanian NGO Agenda for Environmental and Responsible Development, Mr. Haji Rehani, said “Breathing dust and exposure to mercury cause serious health damages. Mercury attacks the central nervous system and can cause lifelong disability to children, whose developing bodies are more easily affected by the heavy metal.” This heavy metal is mainly used in small-scale mines, where gold-bearing dust concentration is lower and where cyanide – unlike in larger mines – is not used in the process.
The Human Rights Watch report couldn’t be ignored by the Dar el Salaam government. After a few days they confirmed that there are more than 800,000 small-scale gold miners in the country, thousands of whom are children. At the same time, the government said that the implementation of the existing laws for the enforcement of safe mining practices and the prohibition of child labour in mining has failed due to limited budget.
The Ministry of Labour’s Principle Labour Officer, Mr. Mkama Nyamwesa, said that there are currently only 81 labour inspectors, a number too small to cover all the mining areas that are scattered across the country.
“On paper, Tanzania has strong laws prohibiting child labour in mining, but the government has done far too little to enforce them,” Human Rights Watch accused.
Basically, it is an economic and social problem. “In Tanzania, it is a daunting task for parents to feed their families and send their children to school – Rehani emphasizes – while, at least in theory, working in mines offers a chance of immediate pay.” Many children who work in mining are orphans or are vulnerable children living in poverty. According to Father Marco Turra, a Consolata missionary who knows Tanzania, orphaned children are the first victims. They are often children whose parents died of AIDS, or children of poor families.
The battle for human rights and market logic
Human rights and economic dynamics seldom match. Gold exports are the main source of foreign currency in Tanzania. The country is the fourth largest gold producer in Africa. In the first six months of 2013, Tanzania earned more than one billion and 800 million US dollars in gold exports. Experts estimate that about 10% of the country’s gold comes from small-scale mining, a number which continues to grow as a consequence of rising gold prices and limited alternative sources of income. Child rights violations linked to poverty and limited job opportunities, is not just a Tanzanian problem, it is a sad reality also in other countries. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), about 15% of world gold production comes from quarries or mines where labourers, miners, or farmers work without any authorization and with serious risks for their health. For this “dirty” work that produces around 400 tons of gold per year, according to the UN agency’s data, around 100,000 to 250,000 children are employed in the gold mines of Africa. The top destination for gold from Tanzanian small-scale mines are the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, South Africa, China, and the United Kingdom, which in turn, are exporter countries. (V.G.)