One by one, barefoot miners emerged from the muddy waters to share their stories. The ones who spoke to us were mostly women, some still in their teens. They were visibly tired, and agitated. Some were frightened.
They repeated stories of someone's son, husband or brother who perished recently in a cave-in. These young women also complained of a rash of ailments, the kind of aches and pains you hear from pensioners. Each one of them reported chronic headaches, debilitating pains in their chest and joints, and a shortness of breath. The women feared their children too were at risk. Standing in a pool of heavy metals and uranium all day, every day has this effect on the body.
This is a normal day in the artisanal mines of Kolwezi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) vast copper and cobalt belt. The untapped mineral wealth of the DRC is staggering. At $24 trillion, it's greater than the economic output of the European Union and the United States.
The DRC's copper, cobalt and tantalum power our digital age. These raw materials go into our laptop computers, mobile phones, jet engines and electric grids. Despite its outsized significance in the global economy, DRC perennially ranks at or near the bottom of the United Nations human development index.
Median life expectancy is 52 years here, worse than in Somalia. The mining sector is Congo's biggest source of exports. The global demand for "digital minerals" inflicts a harsh toll on the Congolese, particularly on Congo's women and children.
In January, Amnesty International called out the tech sector, reporting that children as young as seven work the cobalt mines in Katanga, risking their lives to supply the raw materials that go into our smart phones and laptops. After interviewing scores of miners and former miners, I can tell you the situation here is worse. Much worse.
Kolwezi is the bottom rung of the digital supply chain. It's where we filmed in May 2015 a documentary on the dangers of Congo's artisanal mining sector. Kolwezi is located in the southern region of Katanga. There are no warlords, child soldiers nor conflict minerals here. Instead, you find multinationals operating concessions the size of small European countries.
And alongside many of the abandoned or poorly run concessions you find artisanal miners. The DRC has been promoting artisanal mining for the past 15 years. With the state-run mining power, Gécamines, near collapse, it's become painfully clear that artisanal mining may be the last desperate hope to keep some of the DRC's vast mining wealth in local hands. In a country of 75 million, roughly one in six Congolese work in the artisanal mining sector.
International treaties and local laws banning child labor in the mines go largely unheeded here. UNICEF estimates there may be 40,000 children under the age of 16 working in the mines around Kolwezi, plus nearby Kipushi and Likasi. Observing first-hand the sheer number of children working alongside adults, this estimate seemed low to us.
Women too are particularly at risk. According to a recent World Bank survey, 4 in 10 women "reported having to trade sex simply to gain access to work" to these mines. Several women and girls confirmed to us that this pattern of abuse and sexual violence is the unwritten law of the mines.
One female mine worker, Maria Kahumba Yav Mwambuyi, told me that she counsels the young women she meets in the mines to find work elsewhere. "We're treated worse than animals here," she said. Her story, while tragic, is hardly uncommon. Kahumba Yav Mwambuyi had worked in the mines for nearly a decade before quitting recently. During that time, she suffered crippling headaches that forced her to take frequent breaks from washing and sorting copper ore.
She told me she has internal infections that run up her legs and into her uterus. She said she believes the mine was killing her, and it may explain why her child is so sick. Her youngest daughter, 5, has been diagnosed with the same internal infections even though she's never set foot in the mines. "The doctors told me I was inhaling too much dust. It's too unhealthy here - all day around these minerals, this toxic water," said Kahumba Yav Mwambuyi. She now works on a nearby farm. "I earn a pittance," she said of her new job. "But if I were to come back to work in the mines I would die."
AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE MINES
Kahumba Yav Mwambuyi is not the first to abandon the mines. In our film, we follow the story of a village of impoverished local miners who, with the help of the NGO, Good Shepherd International Foundation, are building an alternative to the mines: a school for former child miners, a budding clothing design enterprise for the women and a co-operative farm. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, the children, many of them orphans, are learning that they have rights. The women speak of a better future.
The men point to the 40-hectare farm they've built with their hands. Taken together, this school, farm and clothing enterprise won't add much to global GDP, but it will deliver food security, an education and a path out of the mines.
Bernhard Warner is a journalist and filmmaker. Maisha: A New Life Outside the Mines will be screened at the 54th Session of the UN Commission on Social Development on 4 February. A public screening will be held in New York on February 8.
Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.