LIMA - "Show up, tiny bit of gold, show up", children used to cry, hoping to see a few golden particles emerge from the mix of mercury and mineral earth in the screening plate or as they stirred gravel and stones with their hands.
In Peru, some 50,000 children as young as six, work in small-scale gold mining, considered to be one of the worst forms of child labour. According to estimates of the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), some 11,000 children who are now under six could be recruited in the near future.
But the inhabitants of the village of Santa Filomena have moved on. This past June, the Minister for Women and Social Development, Ana Maria Romero, declared the village "to be the first mining community free from child labour in Peru".
"The girls and boys of Santa Filomena will no longer be exposed to mercury and have to carry bags filled with mineral earth on their shoulders," said the Minister during the inauguration of a small-scale gold-processing plant that will replace the child workers.
Santa Filomena is situated in the Ayacucho region in the Peruvian sierra. Its history goes back to the mid-1980s when the first gold prospectors arrived. Today, 47 percent of the town's 1,500 inhabitants are children and the great majority of them have been working.
The community was included in the ILO-IPEC programme on the elimination of child labour in mining in South America which covers Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru where some 400,000 people, directly or indirectly, depend on this activity, and an estimated 200,000 children are involved in it or entering it.
A miner's life
Peru is the largest gold producer in Latin America and number seven worldwide. Gold is the country's main export and 13 per cent, some 15 tons a year, comes from small-scale mining activities with an export value of US$120 million per year. The mineral provides a livelihood to some 30,000 families.
Small-scale mining is considered both an opportunity and a problem in Peru. On the one side, it is recognized for its job-creation potential and its contribution to local development and the fight against poverty and migration to the big cities. Furthermore, small-scale mining earns foreign currency and permits the exploitation of sites whose low returns, simple technology and labour intensity are uninteresting for industrial mining. On the other side, extracting gold is synonymous with environmental pollution, serious health and safety problems at work, precarious working conditions and, more and more frequently, the use of child labour on extremely dangerous sites.
At small-scale mines, it is common to see children working inside the mine shaft, inhaling a mix of dust and toxic gases, or outside at the gold-washing installations, in high temperatures and torrential rain, inhaling highly toxic gaseous mercury stemming from the mix which allows separation of the gold particles.
"The health of the children is seriously affected," says the website of the ILO-IPEC programme on small-scale mining.
According to Carmen Moreno, the local ILO-IPEC expert, "the Santa Filomena experience is the most complete and emblematic as it shows that is it possible to prevent and eliminate child labour in small-scale gold mining with the strong support of local institutions and an integrated approach to sustainable development of the community and the families".
The mining community of Santa Filomena has organized itself as the Mineworkers' Association in order to obtain such advantages as a permit to use explosives and improved transport facilities for getting the gold to the retail centre - all essential elements in improving working conditions.
On the basis of this community organization, and together with the NGO CooperAccion and the Peruvian authorities, the ILO started its project to eradicate child labour in small-scale mining in Santa Filomena. The ILO model of preventing and eliminating child labour was based on the promotion of sustainable development and community participation.
Combining strategies of formalization, modernization of production, strengthening organizational capacities, improving social protection, creating income for women, awareness raising and the development of education, nutrition and health services, the project enabled hundreds of boys and girls to leave the mines.
The mining programme
Thanks to the ILO-IPEC programme on the promotion of sustainable development in mining communities in seven sites in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, 1,046 children have been withdrawn from small-scale mining and 6,265 have been prevented from taking up work in small-scale mining.
The sub-regional programme on the prevention and progressive elimination of child labour in small-scale gold mining in South America was started in 2000, with the support of the United States' Department of Labor (USDOL).
Key elements in the strategy against child labour in small-scale mining in these countries focus on working conditions in the mines, the situation of children, the development needs of the communities and public policies at the national and local level.
Central elements of the programme include raising awareness in families, strengthening institutions, and improving services and the mining production process to generate higher incomes for adults.
On the mining site of Bella Rica, Ecuador, some 3,000 people seek their fortune. Not many of them find it: low productivity allows most of the families to find just enough gold to survive. Frequently, children process tons of material.
But even here the ILO programme has begun and things are changing. Bladimir Chicaiza, ILO-IPEC representative in Ecuador, says that 230 children have already been withdrawn from mining activities in Bella Rica. Another 50 children are still working because their parents fear to lose their children's support.