TENKOTO, Senegal A reef of gold buried beneath this vast, parched grassland arcs across some of the world's poorest countries. Where the ore is rich, industrial mines carve it out. Where it's not, the poor sift the earth.
These hardscrabble miners include many thousands of children. They work long hours at often dangerous jobs in hundreds of primitive mines scattered through the West African bush. Some are as young as 4 years old.
In a yearlong investigation, The Associated Press visited six of these bush mines in three West African countries and interviewed more than 150 child miners. AP journalists watched as child-mined gold was bought by itinerant traders. And, through interviews and customs documents, The AP tracked gold from these mines on a 3,000-mile journey to Mali's capital city and then on to Switzerland, where it enters the world market.
Most bush mines are little more than holes in the ground, but there are thousands of them in Africa, South America and Asia. Together, they produce a fifth of the world's gold, according to U.N. reports. And wherever you find bush mines, these reports and mine experts say, you also find child labor.
If you wear a gold ring, write with a gold-tipped pen or invest in gold, chances are good your life is connected to these children.
One of them is Saliou Diallo. He's 12 years old and less than 4 feet tall.
Saliou and his friends, Hassane Diallo, 12 (no relation), and Momodou Ba, 13, dropped out of school about three years ago when the village's only teacher left. They were living in mud huts with their families in Guinea, and went to work in their fathers' fields.
Last year, as the price of gold hit a 26-year high, a thin stranger approached. The boys say he offered to take them to a place across the border in Senegal, where money hid inside the ground.
The spike in gold prices over the past seven years has lured increasing numbers of poor people, including child recruits, to bush mines. The United Nations labor agency estimates there are now 100,000 to 250,000 child gold miners in West Africa alone.
Saliou and his friends say the recruiter promised them $2 a day. It sounded like a lot of money to children who had none.
In a region where 4-year-olds haul water and tend goats, boys of Saliou's age are expected to earn money for their families. Senegal prohibits anyone under 18 from doing hazardous work, and mining is among the most hazardous of jobs. However, the laws are seldom enforced.
Saliou packed his clothes, hoisted the bundle on top of his head and slipped away before daybreak. The recruiter led the three boys on a weeklong walk of over 100 miles. The straps of their plastic sandals dug into their heels until their feet swelled.
The boys heard the mine before they saw it, the sound of hammers pounding rocks into dust. The tall grass had been cut away. In its place rose hundreds of cone-shaped huts with roofs of brown grass. Tenkoto, once a pinprick on the landscape, had swelled into a mining village of 10,000. The AP found the boys there, living in huts where they slept squeezed between adults on bare mattresses.
Each night before falling asleep, Saliou struggles to remember a verse from the Quran. He doesn't know what the words mean, but he had been told they would protect him.
Six miles from the village, men and teenage boys, some as young as 14, clamber down mine shafts 30 to 50 meters deep. The shafts are as narrow as manholes. Younger teens yank the rocks up with a pulley.
Saliou's boss buys bags of dirt from these men. The men have already combed it for gold, but usually a few crumbs remain. Boys like Saliou and his friends take turns at different jobs to coax the crumbs out.
They steer wheelbarrows of dirt over rutted paths. They pound the dirt with wooden posts for hours until it is as fine as flour. They wash the dirt in a large sieve-like box. Then they squat next to a plastic tub, pour mercury into their bare hands, and rub it into the mud like a woman scrubbing laundry on rocks.
Mercury attracts gold like a magnet. But it also attacks the brain and can cause tremors, speech impediments, retardation, kidney damage and blindness.
Saliou's tub of dirt yields a silvery ball the size of an M&M. He hands it to his boss, who lifts up his shades to eye it. The man heats the ball over a charcoal fire to make the mercury evaporate, leaving behind a fleck of gold.
Just handling mercury is treacherous; breathing its fumes is worse. The children don't know that. They crowd for a glimpse of the gold as its silvery husk slowly vaporizes.
At mealtime, Saliou rinses his hands in water from a muddy pool where the mercury run-off was dumped. He scoops a mouthful of rice and licks his hand clean.
Evenings, Saliou's boss weaves his way between huts where women boil cabbage and nurse sweaty babies. The speck of gold the boys squeezed from the dirt is in the pocket of his jeans.
A gold merchant waits in a dark shack, his metal scales propped on a wooden table.
The buyers of bush gold are distinguishable from the miners by their tidy clothes and scales. Each one offers the same price for 1 gram of gold roughly $19. (There are 31 grams in a troy ounce, the standard weight used to measure gold.)
The buyers lend the miners money to purchase tools and bags of untreated dirt. In return, they get first crack at the gold. Saliou's boss says he is loyal to a merchant named Yacouba Doumbia, who gave him his startup capital.
Doumbia says it takes him more than a month to collect nearly 1 kilogram (about 32 ounces) of gold. He hides it in pockets sewn into his clothes.
The gold leaves at dawn on the back of a motorcycle. It travels four days through the grasslands to Bamako, the capital of Mali. Couriers say the journey is dangerous. Some carry guns. They take back roads, never the highway.
The motorcycles pour into the city from hundreds of bush mines along the crooked spine of the gold reef. There the gold funnels into five squalid offices near a central square.
Bush buyers like Doumbia say they are nearly all loyal to one of five Bamako gold barons: Fantamadi Traore, Fabou Traore, Sadou Diallo, Boubacar Camara and El Haj Moussa Diaby, whose business is now handled by his son, Fode Diaby.
Doumbia gets his buying money and his motorcycle from Fantamadi Traore. They come from the same dusty Malian village, which means they are as good as family.
Traore says he has recruited over 70 buyers, most from his village. They have blanketed Tenkoto.
"All the gold that leaves our village is headed to Mali to this one man," says Bambo Cissokho, the village chief of Tenkoto.
Traore's buyers pull into his muddy alleyway in Bamako and hand over the gold, sealed like spices in Ziploc bags. The weight of the gold and the name of each buyer is marked on a Post-It note. Then gold from various buyers is melted together in an outdoor furnace and poured into a mold to form an uneven bar.
The AP watched buyers take the Post-It notes upstairs to Traore's office, where dirty curtains cover the windows. There the 50-year-old bearded man chews kola nuts while a TV flashes the price of gold on the world market.
Traore's men pay the buyers from a safe stacked with West African francs and U.S. dollars. The price for gold from Tenkoto is $22.40 a gram about $3.40 more than the buyers paid the miners. A courier making a typical delivery of one kilogram receives $22,400, of which $3,400 is profit.
The buyers head back to the mine with their hidden pockets full of cash to buy more gold. The pattern is repeated over and over at bush mines where children work all over West Africa.
Children travel from mine to mine, moving with the gold. Six months after Saliou and his friends arrived in Tenkoto, their boss decided the mine was nearly played out. So he and the boys walked for more than a week, crossed the Senegal border, and arrived at another mine in Hamdalaye, Mali. There, the gold the boys mine is sold to a different buyer. The gold then makes the same journey by motorcycle to Bamako, this time to another of the five main traders, Sadou Diallo.
The traders, in turn, send the uneven gold bars by courier across Bamako's clogged roads to a wretched orange building. Inside, the couriers head for Room 207.
The walls are stained with handprints, the hallway smells faintly of urine, and drapes dark with dirt block out the light. The filth obscures the fact that millions of dollars course through the office of Abou Ba.
In Mali and Senegal, there are hundreds of itinerant gold buyers and five major gold traders. But there is only one man with the paperwork, money and connections to make a business of exporting bush gold to Europe. An AP review of five years of Malian customs documents confirms that only Ba regularly takes bush gold out of the country.
All five traders said they sell all their gold to Ba, also known as Bah.
"He has the means to take it out. We don't," said Fabou Traore, who sells roughly 80 kilograms (about 2,570 ounces) of gold to Ba per month.
"For a long time, he's worked with the white people," said Sadou Diallo, who showed a recent receipt from Ba for $194,000 worth of gold.
"There is no choice," said Fantamadi Traore.
Taking gold out of Mali is expensive. Government monitors assay the gold and charge $11 per kilogram, and a 6 percent tax is added at the airport. From the bush to the world market, an ounce of pure gold increases in price by about $380, a margin that strains each middleman along the route.
In an interview, Ba acknowledged that all his gold comes from bush mines, including from the Tenkoto and Hamdalaye mines where The AP saw Saliou and many other children working.
Asked about child labor, Ba got testy. "We don't live in the bush, so we have nothing to do with child labor," the 50-year-old trader said, the comment translated from his native French. He has never visited the mines, he added. "We just buy gold."
Ba told the AP that nearly all of the gold he buys is exported to Switzerland. Later, one of his Swiss customers presented a written statement from Ba saying he sells 90 percent of his gold to buyers in other West African countries. Mali customs logs, however, have no record of such exports. When the AP sought clarification, Ba, stood by his original statement.
"We do not work with any African country," he wrote. "All of our merchandise is sold in Switzerland."
Since at least 2003, Ba and his associates have carried bush gold in suitcases and packages to Geneva on commercial flights from the Bamako airport, usually making the trip several times a month.
Mali customs logs show he normally takes three to five kilograms at a time worth as much as $86,000 to $143,000 at today's prices.
"I can assure you that what he declares is only a fraction of what is going out," said inspector Bassirou Keita at the Mali Department of Deeds and Surveying, which oversees tax revenue from mining. "If I am wrong, you can cut off my head and put it on a platter."
In response, Ba wrote: "I make my declarations. I pay my taxes."
The Mali customs records say that between January 2003 and March 2008, Ba exported over 800 kilograms of gold (more than 2,140 troy pounds) to Switzerland. That's roughly the weight of a Volkswagen bug and worth up to $22 million at today's prices, depending on purity.
In Geneva, Ba said, he drops off the gold bars at a Swiss customs counter inside the international airport.
Once in Switzerland, Ba's gold enters the nebulous world of Swiss banking and precious metals trading, where secrecy is enshrined in both tradition and law. Swiss customs records, like its banking transactions, are confidential.
But customs records in Mali show that since 2003, 96 percent of Ba's exports have been purchased by two small Geneva companies. Decafin SA bought nearly one-fifth of it, worth up to $4 million at today's prices. The rest, worth up to $18 million, was bought by Monetary Institute, run by former Decafin executive Judah Leon Morali.
"I am just a little guy," Morali said. "I buy some grams, some kilos, from here and there." Everyone buys from Ba, he said, and if other company names don't appear it's because some transactions are unrecorded.
Morali said he visited Ba's office in Bamako and "never saw a child working." However, he acknowledged, "I've never been to these mines."
If they employ children, he asked, where are the written work contracts? Primitive bush mines, of course, do not have work contracts.
"There's no work contract with any children? Voila!" Morali said, dismissing the matter.
Decafin, the second importer, is a family business located on Geneva's exclusive rue du Rhone. Marc Arazi, its principal officer, first denied buying from Ba. But later, one of the company's attorneys, Marc Oederlin, said Decafin's business relationship with Ba is undeniable and that Arazi acknowledges it.
The lawyer said Decafin is concerned about child labor but has no legal responsibility to investigate how the gold it imports is mined. He added that Decafin trusts Ba and is certain his gold is not the product of child labor.
Earlier this year, Decafin unsuccessfully sued The AP in Switzerland to prevent its name from being published in this story, claiming it would unfairly damage the company's reputation. In court papers, Decafin claimed its gold could not be mined by children in Senegal and Mali, where the AP had observed child gold miners, because Ba gets it from northern Guinea. Arazi visited the area in 2005, Decafin said, and if he had seen underage workers he would not have done business with Ba.
The reef of gold stretches 70 miles through northern Guinea. There, hundreds of bush mines cluster around the towns of Siguiri and Kankan.
A United Nations mining expert who inspected the region a few months after Arazi's visit estimated that 10 percent to 20 percent of its thousands of mine workers were children. The report also documented fatal collapses of poorly constructed mine shafts, nonexistent sanitation and extreme poverty. On Saturday in nearby Burkina Faso, an illegal bush mine collapsed following heavy rain, killing at least 31 miners, the government said.
An AP reporter who visited Guinea in April saw hundreds of child miners. The ore is richer here, so the children do not extract the gold with mercury. Instead, they stand in muddy pits under a blistering sun and pan it from the mud.
Many are girls who begin as apprentice panners as young as 4 and become full-time workers by age 10. Teenage boys work the shafts, descending with flashlights tied around their necks to hack ore from the rock. Lancei Conde, the regional administrator of Kankan, said children work at all the bush mines in Guinea.
An army of gold buyers stalk the Guinea mines. Most are loyal to one of three major traders Abdoulaye Nabe, El Haj Oumar Berete, and the Kante brothers (Sakia and Sekouba) who operate out of the towns of Siguiri, Kankan and Kouroussa.
The traders told The AP that they sell some of their gold to a dealer in the Guinea capital of Conakry, but pack most of it into cars or motorcycles bound for Ba's office in Bamako. They prefer to deal with Ba, the traders said, because he pays promptly in U.S. dollars.
Sakia Kante displayed a receipt from Ba, dated April 5, for 7,544 grams (241 ounces) of gold, for which Ba paid nearly $200,000.
The Swiss importers, Monetary and Decafin, said they turn the gold they buy from Ba over to Swiss smelters.
According to industry experts, smelters melt gold from all over the world together in large vats to mold standard bars or strips. So the gold mined by children is mixed in with the rest of the batch.
The smelters credit Decafin and Monetary with the quantity of gold they supply. The two importers are paid when the bars and strips are sold through Swiss banks.
Decafin's gold goes to one of the world's largest smelters, Valcambi SA, according to Olivia Berger, a lawyer for the importer. The gold is then sold through the Swiss banking giant, UBS AG, she said.
Valcambi chief executive Michael Mesaric said his company would not want to "service or even accept gold from a mine where children work." UBS spokeswoman Rebeca Garcia declined to say much about Decafin, citing Swiss banking secrecy laws. However, in its lawsuit against The AP, Decafin said its metal account was closed by UBS as a result of The AP's inquiries.
The smelter for the other importer, Monetary, is unclear. Morali, Monetary's founder, said he used to send his gold to Metalor Technologies SA, a large refiner and precious metals dealer, but switched last year to another smelter that he declined to identify.
"You want to understand the gold trail?" Morali asked. "It comes from Africa and it arrives in the Swiss banks. That's all you need to know."
Metalor denied it had done any business with Monetary. But Metalor acknowledged it did import bush gold directly from Ba in 1999 and 2000, according to Nawal Ait-Hocine, head of Metalor's legal and compliance division. She did not say why it stopped. Mali customs records show Ba also supplied gold to Metalor in 2003, but Ait-Hocine said she could find no record of it.
Metalor conducts "extensive due diligence" to make sure its gold comes from legitimate sources, Ait-Hocine said, but "a company can never be 100 percent sure."
The trail of gold that begins in Saliou's mercury-tainted hands ends with bullion in bank vaults and with necklaces, rings and bracelets sold by jewelry retailers all over the world.
Precisely which products contain child-mined gold, no one can say for sure. Unlike a diamond, gold does not keep its identity on its tortuous journey from mine to market. It passes through 10 or more hands. And when it is melted, usually several times, and mixed with gold from other sources, its address is effectively erased.
Jewelers and retailers that buy gold through UBS include Compagnie Financiere Richemont SA, the firm that makes Montblanc pens, Piaget's luxury watches and the jewelry of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Gold processed by Metalor has been used by these brands as well as in discount jewelry sold at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and luxury jewelry sold by Tiffany & Co.
These companies expressed concern about child labor and frustration that they can't certify their products are free of it. Because bush mines, where child labor is ubiquitous, supply a fifth of the world's gold, the companies realize their supply lines may well be compromised.
"I can't overemphasize how complex this problem is," said Michael Kowalski, Tiffany's chairman. "There is a desire to deal with this. But the question is how?"
Tiffany joined with other jewelers and mining companies in 2005 to create the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices, which forbids child mining. Major refiners, including Metalor, have signed on, as has Cartier. But to date, the council has found no way to enforce compliance.
"Home Depot can track every 2-by-4 to its forest of origin," said economist Michael Conroy, who has written a book on industry supply chains. "You can track every bag of coffee, every diamond to a specific diamond field. But for gold there's nothing."
After six months of work, Saliou is paid $40. He was promised $2 a day, which would come to $360. But his boss deducts money for tea, rice and rent, and Saliou doesn't know how much these things cost.
"If I have one wish, it's that I might someday have a little bit of money," he says. "Sometimes I dream that one day I'll own something made of gold."
He and the other children scour the ground for mud spilled by the adults. It has already been processed for gold once, but they wash it and pour mercury over it again, hoping to find some gold they don't have to give their boss.
They find a flake. It weighs 0.2 grams. They will get $1.95 each.
The boys spend their money on packets of paracetamol, a painkiller sold at the village market. They pop the drug after 10-hour work days to ease the ache in their backs and chests.
The dirt floors of their huts are littered with pill wrappers.