More than 5,000 children work in mining in Colombia, but exploitation of children in mining areas is not limited to working in the mines.
The current situation in Colombia
Colombia's biggest mining sectors are in coal and gold. A boom in gold mining in recent years has been driven not only by large international mining corporations but also by unregulated small-scale mining controlled by illegal armed groups who saw an opportunity to boost their income and influence.
As a result, the value of illegal gold exports from Colombia in recent years has surpassed the value of cocaine exports, becoming the country’s largest illicit export – up to 80% of Colombia’s gold exports are estimated to be produced illegally.
According to some estimates, in one region in northern Colombia alone, the paramilitaries, and the FARC and the ELN guerilla groups obtained as much as $1.5 million a month each in 2015 from mining operations they controlled, accounting for a total of 30% of the $15 million a month that gold mining is reported to be generating in the region.
In some cases, armed groups directly operate mines themselves, while in others they enforce extortion fees and incite terror on communities where unregulated mining is taking place, forcing both adults and children to work either in the mine itself or carry out tasks such as carrying messages or supplies, panning for gold, or for sex.
Risks for children
Children in communities that surround both legal and illegal mines are at risk of hazardous child labour.
Due to a widespread lack of knowledge of child labour laws, mining families often encourage their children to learn the trade at an early age so that they can gain skills, contribute to the family income and potentially avoid the risk of recruitment or commercial sexual exploitation by illegal armed groups.
This has a severely detrimental effect on children’s education, leading many children to drop out of school entirely. Although the government regulates child labour in legal mining, the same regulations do not apply to illegal mining, which currently accounts for 85% of all mines in the country, meaning that the majority of child labour in mining goes unchallenged.
Exploitation of children in mining areas is not limited to working in the mines. There have been reports of recruitment of children into armed groups in order to work in the mining industry, and of girls being recruited and taken for commercial sexual exploitation in nearby mining municipalities.
Research indicates that illegal gold mining areas have the highest incidence of sex trafficking, due to control of such areas by criminal groups already linked to sex trafficking and the lack of a government presence in these areas.
What is Children Change Colombia doing?
We have just closed a call for proposals from Colombian organisations working to defend the rights of children affected by mining.
Given the risks to children outlined above, we are particularly interested in finding an organisation working to reduce the threat to children posed by:
1. Commercial sexual exploitation of children
2. Child labour (and school drop-out)
3. Recruitment and use of children by armed groups
4. Trafficking and enslavement of children
After we have selected a partner, we will support them to develop a well-planned and researched project that really meets the needs of, and involves, the communities it is aimed at.