Two 13-year-old boys dig for gold ore at a small-scale mine in Mbeya Region, Tanzania.

© 2013 Justin Purefoy for Human Rights Watch.

Richard, 11 years old at the time, was down in the gold mine pit when he heard his friends yelling for him to get out. Before he could react, he saw the landslide – caused by a collapsed wall – rushing toward him. The earth rammed into him and buried him up to his chest. Other miners hurried to dig Richard out, and he was taken to the nearest hospital where they diagnosed him with internal injuries. Even today, a year and a half later, the pain in his mid-section sometimes makes it hard for him to walk.

Richard’s story is familiar to people of rural southern Tanzania, where noisy, bustling towns seem to spring up in the middle of a sea of dried grass around small-scale mines, and where many people – including children – mine gold for a living. But mining is an especially dangerous job for children, in part because of the risk of injury, but also because miners handle toxic mercury to separate the gold from the ore.

A lively boy who becomes soft-spoken around strangers, Richard moved in with his aunt a few years ago, after his father died and his mother left. He began mining when he was about 9. Most of the money Richard earns in the mines goes toward school, where he’s required to buy a uniform and pay a “desk fee,” things his aunt can’t afford. His aunt also travels,  and the money she leaves Richard inevitably runs out before her return.

He’s afraid to go back into the pit. But he still does. “I need something to sustain myself,” he said.

Children as young as 8 are working in Tanzanian small-scale gold mines, according to the new Human Rights Watch report, Toxic Toil. They dig and drill in deep, unstable pits, work underground for shifts of up to 24 hours, and transport and crush heavy bags of gold ore. They also breathe in mercury vapor. Tanzanian boys and girls are lured to the gold mines in the hopes of lifting themselves out of poverty, but find themselves stuck in a dead-end cycle of danger and despair.

Tanzania already has strong laws banning children from mines, and the laws should be better enforced. But to help protect especially vulnerable children – orphans or children like Richard – the government, with the help of donor states, should include orphans in mining areas in programs that help them stay in school and transition out of the mines. The government should also improve their access to secondary education and vocational training.

The mines Richard works in tend to be a series of large, interconnected holes or pits, some delving several feet deep. The children tend to work in the shallower areas. Richard has occasionally been chased off a mine by the mine owners, and once by a government official, but that is rare.

Generally, Richard and his friends collect stones and rocks, carrying the ones that aren’t too heavy to the nearby processing area. There, they crush the stone either with larger stones or basic tools. Then a loud, clangy machine called ball mill grinds the stones even further into powder. The air is thick with metal-coated particles of mercury, gold and silver – everyone leaves this area with clothing caked with metallic dust.

Richard goes home to separate the gold from the ore. Near his house, he uses his hands to mix the gold ore with mercury, forming an amalgam. He puts the amalgam into a soda cap and uses a metal holder to hold the cap over a fire. The heat separates out the gold, but it also releases dangerous mercury vapors near his house. Then Richard throws any wastewater into a nearby pit.

Until his interview with Human Rights Watch, Richard had never heard that mercury was dangerous. In fact, mercury poisoning can cause numerous health problems, ranging from tremors and vision impairment to possible kidney and respiratory failure or even death.

Tanzania has helped craft a new global treaty to reduce mercury exposure worldwide. More than 140 governments agreed upon it in January. The Minamata Convention on Mercury, named for the site in Japan of a mercury poisoning disaster, will be adopted in October.

Mining and working with mercury could affect more than just Richard’s health. As with other children, it’s gotten in the way of his education. “If you were number one during exams, when you start mining you start becoming number two or last,” he said. Even teachers reprimand children for mining, Richard said, as they know their grades will slip.

Even Richard sees the pitfalls of mining. In fact, he doesn’t like it at all. He simply needs the money for school. “Otherwise, I have never put mining into consideration,” he said.