In pictures: Children working in Cameroon gold mines despite ban
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Children are still working in mines in Cameroon, despite a ban that came into effect on August 30 after several deadly mine collapses. Our Observer visited Kambele mine on October 4 and took pictures of children working there, more than a month after the Ministry of Mines enacted the ban.
Some sit in the mud, holding buckets or sieves in their hands. Other children have their feet or hands submerged in a pond. Some of these children look younger than 10 years old and yet they are already working in the gold mine in Kambele, a village near the town of Batouri, located in the East Region of the country, not far from the border with the Central African Republic.
Journalist and blogger Jean-Charles Biyo’o Ella went to Kambele on October 4 to report on the situation there. He sent our team these images.
'Children practically grow up in the mine'
Thousands of children come to the mine in Kambele each day to look for gold. You see a lot of kids under the age of 14 but there are also some very young children there. The youngest child I’ve seen at the site was barely a year old. They come with their mothers who work in the mine. Some of the children come to take care of their younger siblings while their mothers work.
The children who are a bit older dig around for gold without any protection. They bring anything they find to gold panners, who will buy it from them for a bit of money.
There is a primary school in the village, right by the mine. When the school year started back in September, there were 200 children. Just a month later, there were only 45 children. They had all left school and gone back to the mines.
Many parents can’t afford their children’s school fees or the materials they need, so they decide that it would be more beneficial for the entire family for the children to work instead of going to school. So these children don’t go to school. They practically grow up in the mine.
However, on August 30, the Minister of Mines, Gabriel Dodo Ndoke, banned children from accessing “all mining sites across the country". His ruling also explicitly banned school-aged children (in Cameroon, aged six to 14) from working in these sites.
This decision was made after at least 10 people, including several adolescents, died in a mine collapse in Kambele in late May. But our Observer says that little has changed on the ground.
There were two or three times as many children in the mines in October as in June. The police do carry out random checks, but they don’t do them often. We would need constant monitoring to really control this problem.
When they are in the mines, the children are exposed to toxic substances like mercury and risk getting ill [Editor’s note: mercury is used to help separate gold from sand].
'People who work in these mines don’t have the means to care for themselves'
Bezalel Ndifo Wafo is a doctor at the Catholic Hospital in Batouri. He often sees patients with illnesses caused by mercury exposure.
When people are consistently exposed to mercury, they can inhale it or ingest it accidentally and their digestive and respiratory systems can become affected. The patients we see often have pulmonary problems or lesions on their esophagus or stomach. You can’t get rid of mercury easily and these lesions can lead to complications in the long term. You can also get skin allergies.
The women who work in the mines are particularly vulnerable. They often stand in water up to their waists and so their genitals come into contact with water that has been contaminated with mercury. They can develop vaginal lesions. And if they happen to be pregnant, mercury exposure can affect the fetus and may impact its neurological or psychomotor development.
Unfortunately, people who work in the mines don’t have the means to care for themselves. When they come, we treat the visible symptoms. But once they are doing better, the patients return to the mines and, when they come back to see us, their symptoms are usually even worse. We need to do more thorough examinations, using better technology, but either we don’t have the equipment or they can’t pay for the treatment. So what really needs to be done is raise awareness about the risks of mercury exposure.
Our team contacted Nico Landry Ndorman, the regional representative of the Ministry of Mines in the East Region, but he did not respond to our requests.
Cameroon’s artisanal mining industry produces an estimated two tonnes of gold each year, most of which is produced in the east of the country, according to an Interpol report published in 2021.