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Child miners face death for tech

By Roger-Claude Liwanga, Special for CNN
Editor’s note: Roger-Claude Liwanga is a human rights lawyer from the Congo and visiting scholar at Boston University. He worked for The Carter Center as a legal consultant, where he developed a training module to train Congolese judges and prosecutors on the protection of children against trafficking for economic exploitation in the mines. He is also the co-founder and executive director of Promote Congo, and is currently directing and producing a short documentary, “Children of the Mines,” which will be launched shortly in Boston. He writes in his personal capacity.

While the world was celebrating the International Day Against Child Labor on June 12, children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were hard at work in the country’s artisanal mines. Out of two million people working in the DRC’s artisanal mines, 40 percent of them are children.

Six months ago, I met a boy I will call Lukoji in the mine washing site of Dilala near the DRC’s Kolwezi city.

When I first saw him, the seven-year- old was sifting and washing heterogenite, an ore rich in cobalt and copper minerals.  He told me: “I began working in the mines when I was five”. He works along with his two brothers who are 12 and 13 years old.

Lukoji only works in the afternoon because he goes to school in the morning. Unlike him, his siblings are school dropouts and work all day in the mine from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Lukoji’s brothers abandoned school because their unemployed parents were unable to pay the school fees for all of Lukoji’s siblings.

Seventy-five percent of children surveyed in the DRC’s artisanal mines are dropouts. The DRC’s Constitution guarantees a free elementary education; but this constitutional provision is ineffective and there are almost no schools in many of the remote mining areas.

Lukoji’s story is common in the mining sites in DRC. I met many children like Lukoji, children who get involved in mining mostly due to poverty and the lack of alternate opportunities in mining regions.

Lukoji works together with his brothers to increase their profits. There are also children who work for middlemen, such as mine traders or mine owners. These middlemen supply children with tools and cash advances, and in exchange, they force children to sell them their minerals at very low prices. The children’s earnings range from $0.75 to $3 a day, which they use to buy food, clothes and shoes, or towards school fees.

The work conditions in the artisanal mines are inhumane. Children use their bare hands and feet to dig, sift, wash and lift heavy loads of minerals. These tasks expose them to high probabilities of being injured or killed.

Many children get killed in soil collapses, which occur when they extract minerals from deep and narrow holes. The average number of child deaths from soil collapses in the DRC’s province of Katanga alone is about 6.6 per month. In a sample of 63 children interviewed in artisanal mining sites near the cities of Kolwezi, Likasi and Lubumbashi, 20 percent said that at least one of their family members or friends had died in the mine in the last three years.

Child miners are also exposed to sicknesses because of their permanent contact with radioactive minerals, or injuries that leave them with life-time disabilities.

In an open pit mine at Kapata, I met a former child miner, named Tela, 19, who told me that he walks with a limp because a big stone fell on his right leg and broke it while he was extracting minerals five years ago.

Mining work is prohibited by the Congolese Labor Code for children under 18. Despite the legal prohibition, there are few initiatives to prevent children from working in the mines, and there are almost no prosecutions against those who employ children or buy minerals coming from child labor.

Minerals extracted by children in the DRC include coltan, cobalt, and copper, among others. Coltan, a mineral of which the DRC has 64% of the world’s reserves, is a fundamental material in the fabrication of modern electronics because of its ability to hold high electric charges. And cobalt is used to produce rechargeable batteries for hybrid electric vehicles, laptops and cell phones.

Many children that I interviewed did not know the final purpose and destination of the minerals they extract.

I asked Lukoji to tell me what was the final destination of the cobalt and copper minerals that he was sifting and cleaning? He innocently pointed his index finger towards the mining depots located around the mines and owned principally by the Chinese.

What Lukoji was unaware of was that the minerals extracted by children are later exported from the Congo to Asia for refining.[1] From Asia, they are sold on the world market and purchased by electronic and automobile manufacturers located primarily in developed countries, including the United States.

On June 12, nations commemorated the world day against child labor, but the question posed is what can Americans do for these Congolese child miners?

Three things can be done:

  • Have in mind that child mining labor exists and touches your daily lives through the electronic devices that you cherish.
  • Create or support efforts of social movements to address the root causes of this problem, including poverty and lack of free education in the mining zones.
  • Write to your electronic manufacturers requesting them to map their supply chains and avoid using minerals emanating from child labor.

Your actions, while they may seem small, could have a huge effect for hundreds of thousands of children in the Congo.

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