To stem child labor in mining, a village in Colombia turns to systemic solutions – and fish

June 6, 2018

In the backyard of her aquamarine-colored house, Lizeth Mendoza carefully unwraps fish for the day's lunch. She cleans them and takes them to the kitchen. When her children get home to study, she’ll fry them. She smiles, relieved.

She remembers the days when there were no fish to fry.

Lizeth’s family is one of 20 in Puerto Jobo, a village in northern Colombia, that are taking part in aquaculture, or fish farming, through Pact’s Somos Tesoro project. They’ve left behind the days when their kitchens had more questions than answers, when they only had one option for income, and when their children mined and were routinely exposed to mercury.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Labor, Pact launched Somos Tesoro – “We are Treasure” – in 2013 to reduce child labor in mining and improve health and safety in artisanal and small-scale mines. With its local partners, the Alliance for Responsible Mining, Fondo Acción and Fundación Mi Sangre, Pact is taking a systemic, integrated approach, addressing the many factors that lead to child labor, including poverty, food insecurity, economic instability, limited education, weak institutions and public policies on child labor, and more. 

An estimated 5,000 children take part in mining in Colombia. Somos Tesoro focuses on two geographic areas where families rely on mining for their livelihoods: the coal mining communities of Boyacá and the gold mining communities of Antioquia, where Puerto Jobo is located.

Aquaculture illustrates the ethos of the Somos Tesoro project, addressing child labor in mining by addressing the systemic problems around it – the struggles that lead children to mines and the limitations that lead parents to allow it. By building stronger livelihoods, families gain the options they need to leave child labor behind, along with mining altogether if they so choose.

In the past, Lizeth explains, life for many women and children in Puerto Jobo revolved around panning for gold in gorges and banks of rivers. “You got up early, at four o'clock in the morning,” she says, to put in long hours between the shallow water and the hot sun to get just a small amount of precious metal.

When children would see their parents suffering in the mines, they’d join them, eager to help support the family. Sometimes they used cooking pans from their homes, mixing water and earth with a little bit of mercury until they could see the golden dust.

Pact began by providing parents with education and training. In addition to learning fish, poultry and vegetable farming, they gained knowledge on household economics, saving money, entrepreneurship, positive parenting and the dangers of child labor.

The people of Puerto Jobo were engaged and interested and wanted to learn more. Seeing their commitment to improving their community, Pact decided in 2015 to help Puerto Jobo launch their aquaculture project.

Once the 20 families were selected, the community identified two abandoned ponds on mining lands, which were tested and confirmed to be fresh and mercury-free. Pact, in partnership with the National Institute of Technical Education and other local partners, then initiated trainings on fish farming, administration, accounting, marketing and conflict resolution. Lizeth and other participating adults cleaned and tended the ponds, eventually adding fish.

They also worked to build a more formalized structure in their new, nascent organization, which they would run together. Among the rules they established, one in particular broke with tradition: From now on, they would not take their children to work.

Three years later, life has changed in Puerto Jobo.

Along with the mines, there are thriving ponds. Lizeth and other women now sell fish in nearby villages. They’ve used some of the income to create a revolving fund, from which they can access low-interest loans. This, and the habit of saving they’ve learned, means their families have resources at their disposal – resources that will last.

Household incomes and food security have increased, and economic and social vulnerability have decreased. This household-level economic growth, coupled with improved parenting skills, has given mothers and fathers the confidence and knowledge they needed to change their approach to parenting and build protective environments for children and adolescents.

Lizeth's daugther, Luna Sofía, right, plays with a friend.

Adults who continue to mine are doing it more safely. The Alliance for Responsible Mining has trained families on the consequences of mercury exposure and on alternatives for gold extraction. Cooking pots are no longer used with mercury, and through lab tests, ARM has helped miners learn the percentage of mercury in their bodies and get needed treatment. Somos Tesoro has also provided boots, hats and other protective equipment.

“We did not know that it hurt our health,” Lizeth says.

She has built strong bonds with other women involved in aquaculture. Their network has given them more control over their lives. They no longer need or want to bring their children to work.

Lizeth’s youngest daughter, Luna Sofía, rides her bicycle and plays with her friends in her spare time. She and other young people in Puerto Jobo are now able to imagine livelihoods for their future other than mining.

“In this project,” Lizeth says, “we have learned many things.”

Lead photo: An aquaculture participant in Puerto Jobo.

Funding for Somos Tesoro is provided by the United States Department of Labor under cooperative agreement number IL‐24919-13-75-K. This material does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the United States Department of Labor, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the United States Government.