“Oscar,” a 16-year-old Peruvian who used a pseudonym, was sold to an illegal gold mine owner after his cousin promised that he would receive wages in “chunks of gold.” In the eight months that he worked, Oscar almost died from malaria, got a fungal infection from working without shoes, and later contracted yellow fever. He was paid with ten grams of gold, which he later sold to a gold buyer for the low price of roughly $115.
Oscar is just one of many people trafficked into the grim world of gold mining where children become labor and sexual commodities and are desperate to leave these conditions behind, according to a report released on Thursday by Verite, a non-profit organization dedicated to addressing modern slavery.
According to the report, the illicit gold mining business has been so profitable that the value of illegal gold exports in Latin America recently surpassed the value of cocaine exports in Peru and Colombia, which were the two largest cocaine producers. The publication also found that illegal mining is so widespread that 91 percent of gold in Venezuela, 80 percent of gold in Colombia, and 77 percent of gold in Ecuador is produced illegally.
Child labor is so rampant in illegal gold mining in Peru and Colombia that it’s not uncommon to find 200 to 400 children working in a single mine. It’s also likely between 450 and 600 children as young as eight years old work in Colombian mines. Researchers found that young children in Peru worked in “peripheral services such as tire and motorcycle repair and stores,” while teenagers like Oscar take on more dangerous jobs such as swimming in mercury-filled pools of water to “suck up gold-laced sand with powerful hoses, risking drowning and being disembowelled by the powerful hoses.”
The Paradox Of Congo: How The World’s Wealthiest Country Became Home To The World’s Poorest PeopleIn the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the vast majority of people live in extreme poverty, earning only around …thinkprogress.orgThese illegal mining efforts have led to environmental damage and the internal displacement of many people who have had no choice but to continue to work in mines to survive. Yet, illegal mining is just a small driver of internal displacement issue within the country. As of December 2014, armed conflict has internally displaced more than six million people, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Other issues driving displacement include drug trafficking, confrontations between armed groups and government security forces, and direct threats to individuals.
“We have found a high rate of displacement in Colombia, which has the second highest rate of displacement after Syria,” Quinn Kepes, Verite Program Director told reporters in a teleconference on Thursday. “Many displaced people in Colombia are vulnerable to illegal mining and armed groups, so they become vulnerable to working in illegal mines.”
The issues that children encounter in their dangerous mining work is troubling, but illegal mining isn’t just localized to Latin America. The Democratic Republic of Congo — home to a vast majority of poverty-stricken residents — arguably sits on untapped, mineral ores worth $24 trillion. Yet the profits from mining efforts there have not trickled down to the Congolese. Rather, the conflict minerals have spurred one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II.
“It’s not only on the refinery,” Livia Wagner, private sector advisor at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, said on the press call. “It’s about all the elements in the supply chain so we’re talking about companies of heavy machinery. I’ve seen heavy machinery from well-known Peruvian companies. The financial industry also has to take up their responsibility as well as mercury traders and people who are supplying mercury.”
This piece has been updated to reflect that illegal mining is not the sole factor causing internal displacement in Colombia.