He can't read, but he's already a master at detecting traces of gold. The quest for gold in the camps of this city in the state of Bolivar is first and foremost a game. But it soon turns into full-time work, which is seen as exploitation by human rights defenders.

Sitting in muddy puddles, dozens of young people dexterously spin large +plates+ hollow, searching among the earth for pieces of gold that would have adhered to mercury, a pollutant yet prohibited.

"Everything that glitters is put in a bag and washed with water. Gold sticks to quicksilver (mercury)," says Martin, whose identity has been changed for security reasons.

But, this is only one phase of gold panning and you have to work hard. Because of their small size, it is often the children who interfere in the pits to "chop" the earth.

It softens little by little. This is what they call "the material": the mud containing the gold that will be put in the mill, a different method than the recovery of the gold from the plates.

They work squatting, shirtless, covered in mud. Or have to carry, bent under their weight, bags of mud from one hole to another.

Children search for gold, in El Callao, Venezuela, September 1, 2023 © Yris PAUL / AFP

Martin lives in El Peru, a hamlet of El Callao. He never went to school. Only one of his cousins, aged 9, receives an education "because his mother forces him to".

"I'd rather look for gold than go to school. My father says the money is in work," he told AFP. "With what we earn, I buy my little things, shoes, clothes, sometimes sweets."

Most children say that their "dream" is to become a miner, to have "a mill" when they "grow up".

Carlos Trapani, general coordinator of the NGO Cecodap, which defends children's rights, points out that work in the mines takes place in "the worst conditions".


Author of the report "Dangers and violations of the rights of children and adolescents in border and mining activities", Mr. Trapani believes that "conditions in which children are at risk have been normalized, not only because of the risk of accidents and endemic diseases, but also because they are vulnerable to other forms of violence, such as sexual exploitation and abuse".

A child carries a bag of mud at an artisanal gold panning site, in El Callao, Venezuela, August 29, 2023 © Magda Gibelli / AFP

A thousand children work in the region's mines, according to the Andrés Bello Private Catholic University (UCAB). "The family environment is focused on survival," says Eumelis Moya of UCAB Guayana.

Illegal mining is growing rapidly in southern Venezuela, areas where the rule of the strongest often reigns with the presence of guerrillas, paramilitaries and gangs of drug traffickers, who sometimes fight each other.

The state is struggling to enforce the law, as evidenced by the violent clashes between gold miners and the army in recent days in Yapacana Park, the country's largest nature reserve.

Gustavo sweeps past the liquor store in El Peru. He filled three buckets of earth and then went to the river with his three brothers, aged 8, 11 and 13, to wash them with a saucepan in the hope of finding gold.

As in the village everything is paid in gold, they hope that during watered evenings some gold miners will have dropped dust, even nuggets.

A child at a gold panning site, in El Callao, Venezuela, September 3, 2023 © Magda Gibelli / AFP

"The other day I picked up a gram (1g = 50 dollars), I give this money to my mother to buy food and sometimes she buys something for us," says the boy who has been working since the age of 6.

The mother of Gustavo, 28, a miner since the age of 12, says her goal is for them to "go back to school" because "in the mines, there are always risks".

© 2023 AFP