CAMARINES NORTE PROVINCE, Philippines -- A teenage boy lowers himself without a rope into a narrow hole about 6 meters deep, hammering away at a metallic pole to collect gold ore. For 17-year-old Christopher Jude Edria, this is everyday life.
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Digging for gold ore is dangerous, difficult work. At the bottom of each hole, the conditions are extremely muggy, and Christopher's forehead and hands are covered with sweat as soon as he descends. "It's not easy work," the youngster explains. "There are times when I want to quit, but I keep doing it because there is nothing else."
Five years ago, Christopher thought the mining might kill him. He was asked by his father to go back into a hole to pick up a shovel. As he moved sideways into a pitch-black tunnel perpendicular, the tunnel collapsed.
"My back was covered with a huge amount of dirt. It was really scary," the teenager says of being buried alive. His father rushed over and rescued him, but Christopher remains terrified whenever he goes down into the holes.
The work that Christopher does -- artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) -- is riddled with dangers such as health problems due to the use of mercury, as well as the descent into those unstable holes. The majority of the holes are beneath the ground, and the work often involves going deep below the surface or to the bottom of a river. It's also not rare for the work to be delegated to children because of their small stature.
ASGM issue expert Noel Percil, 46, of the nongovernmental organization "Ban Toxics," says, "Most ASGM in the Philippines is illegal because it takes place without government approval. Therefore, these workers do not have social insurance. There are always risks."
There are some cases where the employer will pay for medical treatment, but this usually only covers the period up until the end of work. There is also no safety net in the event of secondary diseases. However, so long as one is healthy, anybody can do the work, making it an attractive option for impoverished children looking to earn a bit of money.
Christopher works almost every day, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. There are times when he uses mercury to purify gold. His daily salary is about 500 yen. Together with his father, who earns a similar income, they support the rest of the family. When there is no money, it is common to buy rice on a tab, and then pay two weeks later. His one-story house has a roof made of palm fronds, and there are cracks all through the walls.
Currently, Christopher should be in the third year of junior high school, but he has hardly been to school recently.
"School is fun when I understand what the teacher is saying, and I am able to answer questions. I want to go to school as much as possible, but I also have to work."
He adds, "Right now, I have no time to think about the future. I want to work as hard as I can, in whatever I do, to support my family." (By Tetsuro Hatakeyama, Science & Environment News Department)
This is the fifth and final part of a series on mercury poisoning.