Children still working in gold mines in the DR Congo, human rights groups say

These children are washing ore in a gold mine in Kamituga in South Kivu.
These children are washing ore in a gold mine in Kamituga in South Kivu. © Idi Kyalondawa

Videos and photos sent to the FRANCE 24 Observers team on March 3 show children working in gold mines in Kamituga in South Kivu province in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even though it is illegal, child labour is still a reality, according to human rights organisations.

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With buckets and shovels in their hands, children – some of whom are not yet 10 years old – wash the muddy contents pulled up from mines in an attempt to extract gold. They don’t have any real equipment or forms of protection. 

In mid-February, Idi Kyalondwana, who works for a mining cooperative specialised in rock-crushing traveled to the mines in Kamituga, in South Kivu province, where many locals make their living from small-scale or artisanal mining. He returned with images and photos documenting the many children at work on these operations. 

"Some actually go down into shafts that are several hundred metres deep"

Some children here work in the mines every day, working several hours at a time. Some actually go down into shafts that are several hundred metres deep and tunnels to dig for gold without any safety measures. It’s incredibly dangerous. There are often cave-ins.  

Others are exposed to toxic substances like mercury, which is used to clean the ore. They also have to carry heavy loads. Most of these children are school-age, but they don’t go to school even though the president, Felix Tshisekedi, declared that primary education should be free for all children. 

There is a high rate of unemployment in South Kivu [Editor’s note: There are no reliable official statistics. However, one local radio reported that the unemployment rate is at 80%, NDLR]. Parents don’t have the means to take care of their children, so the children have to go work in the mines where they make money by selling grams of gold to dealers.

This is taking place, even though child labour is banned by the law. But the local authorities and the mining police don’t do anything to stop the practice

South Kivu is brimming with gold deposits, most of which are controlled by the Kivu Mining Society (SOMINKI) and the Canadian company Banro Corporation through four branches, including Kamituga Mining, which has the principal mining concession in the town. However, Banro Corporation’s activities in the province have been suspended since September 2019 because of the presence of rebel militias. 

"Poverty remains the main cause”

However, according to Raoul Kitungano, the director of the NGO “Justice pour tous" (Justice for all), which fights against child labour in South Kivu’s mines, the local population continue to carry out small-scale, artisanal mining on part of the mine site conceded to this multinational. 

Local people were mining well before Banro Corporation arrived. In order to keep the peace, the Canadian multinational continued to allow local miners to have access to the deposit.

Most of the local population abandoned farming for mining, because they are attracted to the quick returns. The school dropout rate in this area is very high [Editor’s note: Though there are no official statistics confirming this]. Though the government has declared that all children should have access to free primary education, the programme isn’t running across the entire country. 

The children are taking immense risks because fifty people died in a cave-in in this very same mine in September 2020. But we don’t have credible statistics on the number of children who are currently working in the mines in South Kivu. 

As for the NGOs working to end child labour, we have limited resources. We try to speak to the parents and the children to try and convince them that working in the mines isn’t the right answer. But more must be done. Jobs need to be created and alternatives must be established in order to get children out of mining. 

Banro Corporation has not responded to our questions. We will update this article if we do get a response. 

In an interview published in March by the Congolese specialist publication Mining & Business, Venant Burume, the minister of mines in South Kivu, conceded that “in territories like Shabunda, Mwenga, more than 80% of the population works in artisanal mining. With the unemployment crisis in Kalehe as well, most of our young people there also turn to artisanal mining."

Ending child labour by 2025

About 40,000 children work in inhuman conditions in the artisanal mining of cobalt alone in the DRC, according to a 2016 report from Amnesty International and the Congolese NGO Afrewatch.

Under pressure, the government released a strategic document in October 2017, settting out its aim to “eradicate child labour in mining by 2025".

Drawing on child protection laws that condemn the worst forms of child labour, article 299 b of the mining code, which was revised in 2018, bans "mining and the sale of mining products from sites where laws protecting human rights and the rights of women and children” are violated. The fine is $10,000 dollars a day until the violation has ceased. However, according to Kitungano, "these texts aren’t respected. And there has been no real progress.”

However, Kitungano has seen progress in terms of the cobalt mining sector. 

“Thanks to the activism of NGOs on the international stage, there are now less children working in cobalt mining,” Kitungano said. “Cobalt is a strategic material and vital to smartphones and lithium-ion batteries. The DRC is the largest producer globally. But child labour remains a scourge in other mining industries.” 

In 2019, International Rights Advocates, a human rights organisation, filed a complaint against tech giants Apple, Microsoft, Google, Dell and Tesla, accusing them of profiting from the labour of children in cobalt mines in the DRC with full awareness.