By Natalie Jacobsen
Around the world, millions of men, women and even children work to mine resources from tin to gemstones from beneath the surface of the earth.
The days are long and the work is hard. Mud pools around their feet, sweat drips from their foreheads into their eyes. Their hands, calloused from intense labor, crack. They crouch to avoid hitting their heads on low hanging rocks. Coughing and sniffling fills the air in between bangs and thrusts of shovels into the sediment, from the dust clouding up with every dig. They work tirelessly to fill their buckets and pans, to have something to show for their hard day’s mining.
This snapshot is all too common. But organizations like Pact bring hope to dark places and illuminate a path forward, helping communities improve the health, safety, prosperity and lives of miners.
The $900 billion-plus mining business has long prevailed as a necessity for our civilizations to grow. We often picture it as giant machines penetrating steep mountainsides, rail cars following ravines into a tunnel, or oil rigs pumping deep into the ground. Using humans and shovels seems archaic, time consuming in comparison. But, for many minerals, people and simple tools are the main force behind mining.
Today, it is estimated that 85% of all mining is done predominantly through technological and mechanical devices and operations. But the remaining 15% of mining is based on artisanal or small scale mines, which are still done by hand, meaning there are still laborers who are inherently more at risk.
At risk for what, exactly?
One of the common observed side effects of mining (especially for coal) is black lung disease (now considered a disability in the United States), which affects the respiratory system similar to pneumonia. Cancer has also been recorded as a risk to miners. Mercury and lead handling can lead to severe poisoning of organs. Noise-splitting drilling or shoveling can cause ear aches, tinnitus, deafness, or catastrophic mental illness. Breathing in welding fumes, radon, and other gases led to dizziness, above water drowning, hallucinations, and other deadly results. There’s the danger of the work itself – exhaustion from back-breaking work, drowning in sudden cave floods, or explosions caving in a tunnel. And the social dangers? Small-scale miners are at-risk for alcohol and drug abuse, being taken advantage of physically and monetarily.
This is where nonprofits like Pact come in.
Across their organization, Pact strives to improve health, livelihoods, natural resource management, governance, capacity, and market access. One of their signature programs is Mines to Markets, which empowers former and current miners to take control of their lives, work, finances, and well-being.
Why can’t we just eliminate mining altogether?
Many places around the world depend on mining, with few alternate options or industries that could provide for families living in these areas. Small-scale and artisanal mines are vital economic sources for many communities and the basis for countless livelihoods around the world. “Most people don’t realize how vital artisanal and small-scale mining is not only to local economies, but to the global economy. Eighty percent of the world’s gemstones are mined by artisanal and small-scale miners,” said Molly Derrick, Pact’s communications director. “We want to ensure that mining is safer and more productive for all those who choose to mine,” she said. Therefore, Pact, governments and corporations are working together to make these small-scale laborers as safe and protected as possible, allowing them to better control their future. Pact also works specifically to eliminate child labor in mining. “Pact builds the capacity of local institutions to support child protection and care, and helps caregivers boost their income so that kids can…be kids,” said Derrick.
Founded in 1971, Pact is a recognized global leader in international development that works on the ground in 40 countries to improve the lives of those who are challenged by poverty and marginalization. Pact serves these communities because the organization envisions a world where everyone owns their future. Pact builds systemic solutions in partnership with local organizations, businesses and governments to create thriving, resilient communities where people are heard, capable and vibrant.
Last year alone, Pact improved health and social services for 2.5 million people and helped more than 1 million increase their income. They also helped local organizations and government agencies strengthen their capacity to address poverty and marginalization, improving the performance of 1,200 partners. Pact’s Mines to Markets program helped more than 82,000 artisanal and small-scale miners improve their lives.
One of the biggest proponents to a safer future for all and greater protection for at-risk miners is education – the cornerstone of all initiatives to increase livelihood and reduce exploitation. Pact works to transform the system and regulate mining regions by educating miners about the risks and alternative methods that are safer compared to those more commonly used.
What about child labor in mining?
Child labor in mining is a complex global problem that requires integrated, systemic solutions to address root economic and social causes, namely poverty. Pact has been working to address child labor in mining for more than a decade. The organization begins by studying local factors contributing to the problem, and then works in partnership with miners, governments and companies throughout supply chains to address those factors. Pact’s interventions include livelihoods, governance, education and the strengthening of local institutions to create lasting change to reduce and eventually eliminate child labor in mining.
“Our programs are comprehensive and target the root causes of the complex issue of child labor,” said Derrick. Pact works with local communities to share information on the health risks of child mining, on the importance of school, on how to save money and increase family incomes, and more. These steps help communities understand the importance of keeping children out of mines and how they can still earn the income they need.
In Colombia, with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor, Pact’s Somos Tesoro (We are Treasure) project has been working since 2013 to reduce child labor in mining. An estimated 5,000 children take part in mining in Colombia. Somos Tesoro focuses on two geographic areas where families rely on mining for their livelihoods: the coal mining communities of Boyacá and the gold mining communities of Antioquia. With its local partners, Pact is addressing the many factors that lead to child labor, including poverty, food insecurity, economic instability, limited education and weak institutions and public policies on child labor.
In the village of Puerto Jobo, for example, where children were being exposed to mercury at gold mines, Somos Tesoro has made a marked difference in people’s lives. Pact began by providing parents with education and training. In addition to learning fish, poultry and vegetable farming, they gained knowledge on household economics, saving money, entrepreneurship, positive parenting and the dangers of child labor. Pact also helped Puerto Jobo launch a large aquaculture project to raise mercury-free fish to eat and sell.
Today, along with the mines, there are thriving ponds. Puerto Jobo families now sell fish in nearby villages. They’ve used some of the income to create a revolving fund, from which they can access low-interest loans. This, and the habit of saving they’ve learned, means their families have resources at their disposal that will last.
Household incomes and food security have increased, and economic and social vulnerability have decreased. And adults who continue to mine are doing it more safely. The Alliance for Responsible Mining, a Pact partner, has trained families on the consequences of mercury exposure and on alternatives for gold extraction. Cooking pots are no longer used with mercury, and through lab tests, ARM has helped miners learn the percentage of mercury in their bodies and get needed treatment. Somos Tesoro has also provided boots, hats and other protective equipment.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the area of Manono, Pact’s Children Out of Mining project has helped to achieve a more than 90 percent reduction in child labor at targeted mine sites. This was made possible through partnerships with industry leaders including Microsoft, Google and Qualcomm, among others.
“The private sector is a powerful partner on mining issues, particularly child labor,” said Derrick. “We’re eager for these partnerships to continue and for additional corporations to become engaged because it takes all of us to make lasting change.”
While progress takes time, when Pact sets foot in a community, it “has been able to make extraordinary progress in the fight against child labor,” according to Yves Bawa, Pact’s country director for DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi.
So how can I help?
Even if you aren’t the head of a corporation or a leader in the mining industry, there are ways in which you, as an individual, can support the work of Pact and others who are working with mining communities around the world.
- Donate. Pact and other nonprofits cannot see success without every dollar that is given to them.
- Workplace Giving: Join forces with your colleagues and ask your employer to match your donations. Global Impact makes it easy to set up employee giving to collect funds for charity through payroll.
- Write to representatives: U.S. Department of Labor is behind many efforts to decrease reliance on child labor and implement labor laws. Tell your representatives DOL needs to keep their funding to preserve their programs and increase efforts to protect the vulnerable.
- When shopping for jewelry or battery-powered devices, look for goods that are part of responsible supply chains.
- Reuse and recycle: Don’t toss your old devices in the trash. Consider donating them to organizations that reuse them or take them to an authorized recycler.
- Share information: Tell your friends, families, and coworkers what you have learned. Research and write to companies you admire and those you wish would do more.
Joined forces, aligned with a common goal, we can achieve the impossible. “We take all of the help we can get,” said Derrick. “We especially need all kinds of partners willing to tackle this issue,” she said.
How the private sector can help:
- Unlock greater resources.
- Provide key funding.
- Lobby the public sector.
- Support local communities.
- Eliminate child labor from supply chains.
With our combined efforts, support and donations, Pact can make great strides to expand the positive change happening around the world and increase sustainable practices globally. They can lead children out of the tunnels, and into the classroom. Provide effective tools to minimize risks for miners. Safeguard lives at risk with stronger regulations. And secure a better, and brighter, more sustainable future for our world.