A Deadly Trade: Underwater Gold Mining in the Philippines.
Above Photo: a Compressor Diver comes up for air in the Philippines (pulitzercenter.org)
Being a big recreational diver, a frequent diver in the Philippines, and having more than a passing, painful interest in the world of mining, I was interested to read an article by Richard C Paddock in the Inquirer, about people, including children, who dive into deep, muddy, water-filled holes to mine for gold in the Philippines.
It’s called compressor mining, and it originated in Camarines Norte, a poor coastal province in the Philippines.
It’s highly dangerous, but that doesn’t stop young divers descending 60 feet into deep pits or into rivers and bays while breathing through a tube connected to a homemade compressor, usually made from a San Miguel beer keg.
Miners loop the air hose around their shoulders and hold the end in their teeth. Some miners use masks, others just keep their eyes shut.
When they reach the bottom, they blindly dig the earth, shovelling it into rice sacks, and a partner on the surface hauls up the sacks of dirt, hoping they contain gold.
The Philippines banned compressor mining in 2012, but the crews operate outside the law by employing children and using highly toxic mercury. Unsurprisingly, it’s also believed backhanders keep the police and local officials at bay.
Children as young as 10 are employed to do the less-strenuous jobs, such as panning for gold.
When a diver is underwater, potentially fatal nitrogen bubbles can form in the bloodstream and travel to the brain and lungs, a problem heightened if the compressor motor unexpectedly stops pumping air below, and the diver rushes up to the surface for air.
Diesel fumes, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants can enter the hose and foul the air the divers breathe, sometimes with deadly effect.
Compounding the risk to miners, the mercury they use to extract gold from the sediment is highly toxic and is known to cause tremors, memory loss, and brain damage.
Given all that, and the fact they are often diving in dirty, contaminated water, gold divers say their greatest fear is a tunnel cave-in, which sometimes happens, leading to panic-stricken divers drowning in a filthy, muddy grave.
It’s something I definitely won’t be doing on my next dive trip to the Philippines…
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