12 Jun 2015

Dirty gold: shocking plight of the Philippines’ child miners

Driven by poverty, the gold miners of the eastern Philippines stop at nothing to dig out a few flecks of the precious metal – including risking the lives of their children.

Air bubbled through the surface of the water making it look like boiling lava, then slowly a head emerged through the bubbles, then a face, a thick plastic tube clenched between his teeth, writes Evan Williams.

It was Gerald, 16, and he had been 30 feet below the surface for three hours, compressed air forced into his lungs by an old petrol-driven pump.

Above: 16-year-old gold miner Gerald

We are on the far east coast of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, Asia’s Gold Coast. Gerald had been down there for three hours, chiseling away at a seam of gold bearing rock in a narrow cavern under the river, neck-deep in water.

“I do get afraid,” he said, very quietly spoken. “It’s hard chiseling and I fear the earth collapsing and getting caught underneath.”

Turning a blind eye

Gerald is involved in what’s called compressor mining – a form of searching for gold where the miners hold the compressor hose in their teeth, descend 30 or more feet in the completely submerged mine shafts and hack away searching for tiny specs of gold.

If the tube gets blocked, twisted or broken, the air stops and the miner suffocates and drowns. Children are often used as their lungs have not been yet damaged by exhaust fumes sucked into the tubes.

It’s so dangerous it has been specifically banned in the Philippines – yet there is little sign of enforcement, and the authorities tell us they feel they need to turn a blind eye to compressor mining as there is no alternative for the 15,000 miners in this region alone to make money to feed their families.

The local mayor tells me they try to intervene but more and more children are forced into gold mining to help their fathers earn just enough to feed their families.

I had seen some pictures of compressor mining but I was not prepared for level of danger to these men and children once I was there.

It was bad enough when I was on the bamboo and palm leaf rig used by the teams to dive from in to the depths below the river surface. To see them disappear beneath the surface in to the gloom.

But then one of the miners agree to put a go-pro camera on his head and follow Gerald down the flooded shaft so we could see the conditions they work in.

The images we got back are some of the most chilling pictures I have seen.

We follow Gerald’s face as he dives deeper in the gloom, pushing himself down the narrow bamboo walls of the mine shaft, the tube between his teeth the only lifeline of air pumped from the surface.

Larry Lasap

Above: gold miner Larry lasap and his family

For this he earns not more than a few dollars a day but he does it to help feed his five younger brothers and sisters. He doesn’t do it every day but is here enough to know the risks.

As he gets deeper, the water turns to black, the sounds eerie. Once he reaches the bottom he swims a further 20 feet under the river bank and emerges in a small cavern neck deep in water.

Here Gerald and the other men chisel the seam of gold-bearing rock, filling bags that are then hauled to the surface by the same men watching their air tubes. The rocks are scoured for even the tiniest spec of gold to be processed with mercury – a poisonous metal causing brain and organ damage, especially in children.

The gold is then largely sold to brokers who repress the process to increase their profits. They sell largely on the black market to avoid taxes, and much of the gold goes to China and then the rest of the world.

Many of the children we met work in gold mining because it helps their fathers almost double what they can earn. Without them, they can’t afford to feed and school their large families.

But poverty creates a vicious cycle. The search for gold means many children are missing their education, and without an education they remain trapped in a cycle of poverty… and danger.

Responding to Evan Williams’s film, Nobel peace prize winner Kailash Sayyarthi (see video above) told Channel 4 News: “Seeing these kind of situations with the children makes me angry.

“Why the international community is failing the children again and again and again? Why and how long we will keep on ignoring our children? How long we can just find an excuse of poverty and keep on killing the lives and innocence of children?”

That the children have to get into those deep wells inside the water at the risk of their lives – that is something really very, very upsetting. Kailash Sayyarthi, Nobel peace prize winner

Mr Sayyarthi said he knew that such practices were taking place: “In a number of countries the children are engaged in different kinds of mining, including gold mining.

“In my own country the children are working almost in similar conditions in mica mining. Of course, there is nothing like compressed mining that I saw today – that I’ve never seen before. That the children have to get into those deep wells inside the water at the risk of their lives – that is something really very, very upsetting.”

The nobel laureate suggested it was shameful that we have created a situation in which “tiny children have a kind of burden in their minds” where they have a moral responsibility to help their parents. And he promised he would raise the issue of compressed mining with the Philippines government.

Film credits

Research: Hannah Poulter

Field producer: Sol Vanzi

Co-producer/second camera: Ed Hancox

Filmed, produced, reported and directed by Evan Williams

An Evan Williams Productions film for Channel 4 News