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Diving into the Philippines’ dangerous, underwater mines

January 27, 2014 at 6:46 PM EST
Filipino divers disappear into water as opaque as chocolate milk as they blindly dig in search of gold trapped in muddy sediment. It's risky business: As miners go deeper, underwater tunnels could collapse or the compressor that provides air may fail. Hari Sreenivasan reports on a dangerous venture undertaken by adults and kids.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally tonight, we visit the Philippines, a country still reeling from a record typhoon in November.

Just before it hit, photographer Larry C. Price traveled there to document the dangerous and sometimes deadly way some poor Filipinos are making a living.

Hari Sreenivasan narrates our report, produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Near a remote village in the Eastern Philippines, at a small camp in the forest, a man bites down on a plastic tube, adjusts his mask and disappears into water as opaque as chocolate milk.

Descending as deep as 40 feet, he breathes from a small diesel- powered air compressor on the surface, while blindly digging into the sides of a narrow tunnel. For hours at a time, he fills bags with mud and rock that a partner hauls to the surface, where the sediment is broken down and, using mercury, panned for gold.

According to Thomson Reuters, in 2012, the Philippines was the 18th largest producer of gold worldwide. Large companies are responsible for much of that, but there are also unofficial small-scale mines like these. Many lie in the poor coastal province of Camarines Norte, about 200 miles Southeast of Manila, where some of the country’s highest concentrations of the precious mineral can be found.

But much of it is trapped in ore underwater. So-called compressor mining originated in this region of the Philippines as far back as the mid-1990s. The practice was inspired by fishermen, who used the motors to dive deep underwater to catch reef fish. But with the potential for engine breakdowns and tunnel collapses, it’s an extremely dangerous venture, and one not limited to adults.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Larry C. Price traveled to the Philippines for the NewsHour in November. There, he spoke with 15-year old Elias Delima, who began diving when he was just 13. Delima told an interpreter that divers get double the take of the other miners, around $5 a day, and that’s incentive enough.

QUESTION (through translator): Why do you do this? Why do you go into the hole and bring up the dirt?

BOY (through translator): To get gold, to help my parents, and to have some money for myself.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dindo Leche (ph), now 25, said he began diving when he was 14. While he’s no longer afraid, he says he knows the risks remain.

DINDO LECHE, Philippines (through translator): It’s dangerous. Because we are extracting soil, the holes get wider and deeper. The soil loses natural strength. And it doesn’t stick together and easily gives way. That is what we are on the lookout for underwater, so you do not get buried.

QUESTION (through translator): Which is worse, when the compressor stops, or when the tunnel collapses?

DINDO LECHE (through translator): A tunnel collapse is more dangerous. But, often, those two happen at the same time. That is what is called your time to die.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Compressor mining was officially outlawed in the Philippines in 2012. In January of that year, near the town of Paracale, an accident left at least three compressor miners dead. The site was shut down and quickly abandoned.

Yet, with vast stretches of poor rural communities spread across some 7,100 islands, desperation is high and regulation is lacking. November’s record typhoon caused billions of dollars of damage to the country. But it only stopped operations for one day in Mambulao Bay, where more than 400 work on some 40 floating bamboo encampments near the village of Santa Milagrosa.

Miners here say they pay local police $11 a month per worker to look the other way. Many of those workers are children and adolescents.

JULIE HALL, World Health Organization: There are three main risks from this type of practice.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Julie Hall works with the World Health Organization in Manila. She says that in addition to the immediate life-threatening dangers posed by an engine failure or collapse, the conditions also pose longer-term health risks for children. One is the poor quality of air fed to the divers by the compressor engines.

JULIE HALL: It’s likely that that air that’s sucked through the tube will be mixed with diesel fumes, with carbon monoxide, with other pollutants, because it’s very close to the engine that’s driving the compressor.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The second is the effects on the body at those depths underwater.

JULIE HALL: The body’s under a lot of pressure. Little gas bubbles can form in your bloodstream, and those gas bubbles can block off the blood supply to little bits of your brain or little bits of your lung.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And a third is the poor quality of the water they’re diving in, susceptible to bacteria and parasites.

JULIE HALL: For somebody to be spending a lot of time breathing poor-quality air, under pressure, under the water, and exposed to all of these bacteria and other bugs in that dirty water, this clearly poses a significant health risk.

CARLOS CONDE, Human Rights Watch: When you’re a poor family, the more — the more people you can convince to work and contribute to the family income, obviously, the better.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Carlos Conde works for Human Rights Watch in the Philippines. He says that parents are typically the ones pushing their children into this dangerous work.

CARLOS CONDE: Oftentimes, they don’t consider, for instance, education for the kids. Although getting an education is a paramount concern for Filipino families, but, you know, particularly in the provinces, the really poor ones, it’s just, you know, kids are seen as extra hands.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Edlyn Ortiz is 12 years old. Girls like her typically don’t dive. But they help with the panning and domestic chores that allow the family to work at the mine. She tells an interpreter that her family depends on her help.

QUESTION (through translator): Why do you work in gold mining?

GIRL (through translator): To earn money so we can have something to eat.

QUESTION (through translator): What do you like better, going to school or working?

GIRL (through translator): I want to keep going to school, and in the end, that’s what will give us a better life.

LAWRENCE JOHNSON, International Labor Organization: These children are mortgaging their future, not of themselves only, but also their families and their communities.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lawrence Johnson directs the efforts of the U.N.’s International Labor Organization in the Philippines. He agrees that schooling is key to breaking this cycle of child labor.

LAWRENCE JOHNSON: We see education as a way to help the next generation become more productive, to have a better quality of life. But it’s also right now allowing for an environment where these parents can actually provide for their families, and not just go out and mine just enough today to survive.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In a country with so many desperate challenges, even before the typhoon, Johnson says if people want to help stop this practice, they can start by being more conscientious consumers.

LAWRENCE JOHNSON: Whether we’re talking gold or silver that we mine, it’s a bulk commodity. So we ask consumers, are you sure that the ring you’re wearing, the earring, the necklaces are free from child labor? That’s more difficult, but it’s up to consumers to start making that choice again.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For now, the divers will continue to bear the risks, taking their dangerous plunges and grasping for gold.