For many children in Peru, gold mining is a last resort option with no way out. Take the story of Gordo for example: his family was run off their farm by drug traffickers, leaving the 12 year-old boy with no choice but to go down in the mines or face starvation. He spent six years doing dangerous backbreaking labor. His reward? Enough food to survive and a mat to sleep on.

Then there’s the story of Oscar who was sold to a gold mine at age 16 by his cousin. He was forced to carry at least 100 wheelbarrows full of rock per day through the mud for several months to pay off the fee his cousin received. He contracted malaria and was left to die. He was barely saved by the food scraps he worked for in the kitchen.

These are just two of dozens of horror stories published in a report by Verité on surveys conducted throughout Peru’s mining regions.

Child near mining operation in Madre de Dios.

According to Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mining, the country holds 13% of the world’s copper reserves, 4% of gold, 22% of silver, 7.6% of zinc, 9% of lead and 6% of tin reserves. The country is one of the world’s top producers of gold, but over 20% of this mineral wealth is mined illicitly (the Madre de Dios region home to the largest illicit operation) under slave conditions, largely by children and others who never receive pay.

Instead of pay, workers are allowed to mine for themselves in what little free time they have. Whatever gold they can find constitutes their payment.

Aside from sub-standard pay, or none at all,  miners also face a myriad of health and environmental issues that are all part of the job including work-related injuries, poor ventilation, long working hours, malaria, and mercury poisoning. Mercury is used in the gold mining industry to bind together flecks of gold and then burned off allowing it to enter the environment. The additional mercury is poured directly into the water contaminating the ground over time.

While it is largely a young male population forced to labor in mines, young girls are lured by false promises into another form of slavery: sex work. Sex trafficking of young girls is directly linked to the influx of men in mining operations.

The Peruvian government has been taking steps to crack down on child labor.  According to the US Department of Labor, in 2012 Peru made a significant advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. The Government approved and began implementing its second National Strategy for the Prevention and Eradication of Child Labor (ENPETI) for 2012-2021.

The strategy of ENPETI is to eliminate child labor through improving the livelihoods of poor families, improving education opportunities, raising awareness about child labor, improving work conditions for adolescents, and increasing efforts to sanction violators of child labor laws. According to the Government’s 2011 Household Survey, 68% of child laborers work in rural areas.