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(Manila) – The Philippine government is failing to protect children who dig and dive for gold in dangerous small-scale mines, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report and video, released ahead of Children’s Month in the Philippines.

The 39-page report, “What…if Something Went Wrong: Hazardous Child Labor in Small-Scale Gold Mining in the Philippines” documents how thousands of Filipino children – some just 9 years old – work in illegal, small-scale gold mines, mostly financed by local businessmen. Children work in unstable 25-meter-deep pits or underwater along the coastal shore or in rivers, and process gold with mercury, a toxic metal. In September 2014, a 17-year-old boy suffocated in an underground mine because there was no machine providing oxygen. The Philippine government should act on its public commitment to end child labor in mining, Human Rights Watch said.

“Filipino children are working in absolutely terrifying conditions in small-scale gold mines,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Philippine government prohibits dangerous child labor, but has done very little to enforce the law.”

Human Rights Watch conducted field research in Camarines Norte and Masbate provinces in 2014 and 2015. More than 135 people were interviewed, including 65 child miners between the ages of 9 and 17. Beyond the fears of mine collapses and drowning, the children complained of numerous health problems, including back and body pain, skin infections, fevers, and spasms.

In underground mines, children risk injury from falling rocks and wood beams, pit collapse, and lack of oxygen.

Underwater mining for gold, locally known as “compressor mining,” puts adult and child miners at risk of drowning, decompression sickness, and bacterial skin infections. Staying underwater for several hours at a time in 10-meter-deep shafts, the miners receive air from a tube attached to an air compressor at the surface. This work is carried out by adolescent boys and – mostly – adult men. Several boys described moments of fear when they dived for the first time. Fourteen-year-old “Dennis” said: “I was 13 the first time [I dived]. I felt scared because it’s dark and deep.” If the diesel-powered compressor stops working, the miner can drown or get “the bends” coming up too quickly. “Sometimes you have to make it up fast, especially if you have no air in your hose,” said “Joseph,” 16. “It’s a normal thing. It’s happened to me.”

The Philippine government in recent years has taken some important steps to ensure education for all, but the number of out-of-school children in the country remains high. Children, mostly from impoverished households, skip school because of their mining work and sometimes drop out altogether.

“Lots of children in Masbate and Camarines Norte are dropping out of school to work in gold mining,” Kippenberg said. “In order to tackle the root causes of child labor, the government needs to assist the poorest families financially and ensure their children are able to attend and stay in school.”

Children pan for gold along the Bosigon River in Malaya, Camarines Norte. © 2015 Mark Z. Saludes for Human Rights Watch

Children also work with mercury, a readily available toxic metal that is commonly used to process gold. Children are particularly susceptible to mercury, which attacks the central nervous system and can cause brain damage and even death. Unaware of the health risks, children use their bare hands to mix mercury with gold ore and create an amalgam. When they burn off the mercury to retrieve the raw gold, they breathe in toxic fumes.

In the mining village of Malaya, Camarines Norte, Human Rights Watch observed the unrestricted flow of light-grey, mercury-contaminated tailings from gold processing into the nearby river, where children play, swim, and pan for gold. Several children in Malaya complained of tremors, symptoms that could be signs of mercury poisoning. The Philippine government should be introducing mercury-free gold processing, such as is practiced in Benguet province, to reduce the threat to all children, Human Rights Watch said.

The Philippines has signed but not ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury of 2013, which sets out steps to reduce mercury exposure. The government should promptly ratify the Minamata Convention and test for mercury exposure among residents in mining areas.

In March 2015, the government banned the use of mercury in mining as well as compressor mining, but little has been done to implement this regulation so far.

The Philippines is the world’s 20th largest gold producer. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people work in the country’s small-scale gold mines. Large and small-scale mines combined produced about 18 tons of gold in 2014, at a market value of over US$700 million, according to official statistics. The country’s central bank is the official buying agent for gold from small-scale mining and exports it. However, the bank has no process in place to check the conditions in which the gold has been mined. Other gold is smuggled out of the country.

“Small-scale mining provides a vital livelihood for many Filipinos,” Kippenberg said. “But the government needs to take urgent steps to ensure a safe and child-labor-free mining sector so that families can earn an income without putting their children at risk.”

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