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Cameroon Struggling to Get School-Age Miners Back in Class

Gold miners work at a mining site in the Cameroon town of Betare Oya, April 4, 2018.
Gold miners work at a mining site in the Cameroon town of Betare Oya, April 4, 2018.

Cameroon is urging children in the eastern part of the country to stop leaving school to work in the gold industry. The campaign was launched after a report said 74 people have been killed in mine accidents this year, a majority of them of school age.

A group of five Cameroonian teenagers and a Central African refugee are digging through a river bed, searching for gold. One carries a newborn on her back as she turns over the dirt and mud, looking for the precious nuggets.

These kids, ranging in age from 11 to 15, are some of children who have dropped their studies to dig for gold.

The youth say Chinese companies pay them a dollar a day for their labor and a bonus if they find gold.

Government authorities have told locals to stop digging in the area. But the need for income is so high that many ignore the order, including refugees who leave their camps and parents whose kids should be in school.

Yves Bertrand Alienou is a senior divisional officer in the Lom and Djerem administrative unit. He is going village-to-village asking locals to leave gold mines alone and for parents to return their child miners to their studies.

"The first message is that of sympathy from the public authorities that we represent, but most especially we want to ask them to stop exploiting in this dangerous area. As they all know and have seen for themselves it is very dangerous,"

A report published in July by the government and private researchers said 50 people were killed mining for gold in eastern Cameroon last year. That number has jumped to over 70 in just the first half of 2018.

In one of the worst incidents, nine Cameroonians and Central African refugees were killed when a gold mine collapsed on them in the town of Ngoura last December.

Michel Pilo, chief of Mali village, says the Chinese mining companies are not only exploiting their natural resources but also their children.

He says the Chinese companies don't build any schools for the children.And when the child miners dig the water beds, contaminating their only source of drinking water, the Chinese refuse to provide alternative sources such as constructing wells. He says many people have become sick from drinking contaminated water and others have died in landslides.

Vincent Atangana, a Cameroonian official at Chinese mining firm EXXIL, blames parents for allowing their kids to work in the firms. He argues Chinese mining has helped develop the area.

He says many houses are being constructed with modern materials.Several years ago, fuel was sold in cans but today, says Atangana, there are fuel stations.He says these developments are coming when gold mining is still at a working stage -they will do even more when it reaches the industrial level.

Alienou says the government has warned parents and instructed Chinese mining firms to stop hiring school-age laborers. Butwith high demands for gold from China and jobs in eastern Cameroon, there is little enforcement.