Africa: a continent of untold riches in gold and diamonds, contrasted with shocking poverty of citizens living on the surface just above the treasure trove. Veins of gold run through the earth demanding to be mined — a job dangerous enough for adults, but savagely brutal when you're four years old.
The AP conducted a yearlong study of six African gold mines and found more than 150 child miners to interview, tracking the gold from kid to ring. The United Nation's labor agency estimates that there are 100,000 to 250,000 child miners in West Africa alone. One of these, a 12-year-old miner (who is less than four feet tall) was lured to the trade after his village's only teacher left, and the global price of gold spiked. He and two friends hiked with their recruiter for 100 miles, to the mine where the boys live, sleeping on mattresses crammed between adults. It's not just boys lured into the trade; girls also start as young as four and can be working full-time by the age of 10.
To see how the children mine,
Some boys squeeze down mine shafts as narrow as manholes that run 100 feet deep — and some get bags of dirt that men have mostly picked clean of gold, only crumbs remain. The boys pour mercury (the same substance that attacks the brain and can cause retardation and blindness) into their bare hands and rub it into the mud to coax the gold crumbs to stick.
After the treasure has changed hands up to the eventual gold dealers, it's far removed from the young sources. One gold merchant said when asked about child miners, "We don't live in the bush, so we have nothing to do with child labor. We just buy gold." The boys know the sweat value of the metal. The 12-year-old says, "If I have one wish, it's that I might someday have a little bit of money. Sometimes I dream that one day I'll own something made of gold."
The complication comes as it's near impossible to know which gold has been extracted from the earth by small hands — by the time it becomes jewelry, its provenance is all but mute.