Fool's gold

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Children pushed to sift for precious metal lose out on education


Children sift for gold in Quang Tri Province. They work all day in the sun without any adult supervision.

It has been weeks since the new school year got underway, but several teenage kids in Huc Nghi Commune are playing truant, because their parents tell them to.

Their playground is a "gold field", and the game they play involves sifting for grains of the precious metal through layers of sand and gravel.

There is not much fun and frolic. In fact, the ethnic minority children who prospect for gold in Huc Nghi, a commune in the central province of Quang Tri, are playing a dangerous game.

Nobody has forgotten the death of a woman due to a gold mine collapse in the area around three months ago, but the gold field by the Dakrong River in the commune is still crowded with children.

 EDITOR'S NOTE

Quang Tri Province is one of several hotspots for illegal gold mining. The bigger players, companies that are mostly unlicensed, operate in the mountains and reports say their operations have destroyed large areas of forests, and polluted local rivers and streams with the chemicals used. While some ethnic minority adults have been pressed into service by these companies to operate machines or carry gold for up to VND500,000 ($25) a day, they and other parents get their teenage children to sift through the streams below for "leftovers". Thanh Nien reports from one commune in the province.

Ho Van Phong, a local commune official, said "Though we don't want to, we have to ignore them, because if we arrest them, they would, in a tearful voice, blame floods and droughts for ruining crops, leaving them with no other option than to sift for gold to earn something to eat."

Ha Cong Van, a teacher who has been teaching in the area for nearly 30 years, said, "Many parents still think that the children have to fend for themselves, so going to school is something that is very far from happening."

Gold prospecting has become a daily activity for children of the Pako ethnic group in the area, and it is done without the supervision of any adults.

Most of the child prospectors have either dropped out of school or rush to the job soon after class.

They soak themselves in water for hours, their heads and backs exposed to the glaring sun as they scan for tiny gold particles in the layers of sand and gravel.

"You are shooting photos to put us on TV? If going on TV means we do not have to search for gold and can go to school, please go ahead," ten-year-old Ho Van Puong told the Thanh Nien reporter.

Among the group of children that Thanh Nien spoke to, Puong is the most fluent in Vietnamese. Others converse in the language of the ethnic group.

While there are times that one of them hits a "jackpot" which would constitute several days worth of food, making others work even harder, most of the time, "there's nothing at all."

But this also has them dig more, sift more and earn bleeding scratches every day from the sand and rock when their feet slip in the water.

Fourteen-year-old Ho Thi San said, "On a lucky day, I earn several thousand dong (one US dollar is VND19,000). Mostly I just go home with an empty tray."

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