Miners work in harsh conditions and often take home no pay in Congo's gold trade [GETTY]

In the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo's northeast situated close to the Uganda border, thousands of miners are working in muddy pits, extracting sand, mud and rocks in the search for gold.

But they are not getting rich and their work is risky.

As international gold traders begin to cash in on the high demand for gold and precious metals caused by the global financial crisis, little of the high returns ever reach the mining communities.

For miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) decades of gold mining should have provided a ticket to prosperity but in reality it has trapped them in a cycle of violence and poverty.

Human rights groups have long voiced concern that armed groups fighting for the control of gold mines and trading routes in the northeastern region of the DRC have used profits to buy weapons, fund their military activities, and may have committed war crimes against local populations.

They say the gold trade may have served as a catalyst prolonging conflict in the DRC.

It is no coincidence, then, that some of the most intense fighting in the DRC conflict and some of the worst treatment of civilians have taken place in the Congo's Ituri District, the site of one of Africa's richest gold fields.

Ituri gold

Mandro says working the gold mines is the only way he can feed his family [AL JAZEERA]
Al Jazeera recently gained access to gold mines in the Ituri District.

Gold there is found in two forms – either embedded in rock or as loose pieces of varying sizes hidden in the earth or sand, often found deep under river beds.

Most of the mines are operated by artisanal miners.

Every morning 19-year-old Jean Faustin Mandro dutifully shows up for work and toils his way through tonnes of earth. It is the only way he can feed his daughter and wife. 

"Work is very hard here but there is no other work for us to do," he told Al Jazeera.

And there is no guarantee he will be payed for his efforts. At the end of the day each labourer is given a bucket of earth from the pit as payment. 

It may not contain gold.

Innocent Musubi, another miner, searched through his day's wage-bucket at the end of a long day, but he found nothing. It means he will have to return to his family empty-handed and try his luck the next day.

"Working in a gold mine means you depend on luck to get money," he says. "Some months you can make nothing and other months you can make a lot of money and forget all about the hard work you do," he added.

Child labour

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To increase their chances of finding gold in the wage-bucket, families have resorted to sending their children to the mines too.

Using a plank of wood and a towel, children as young as eight sieve for gold.

They don't make much as the owner of the mine usually takes whatever they find.

If they are lucky they just get enough to buy food and other essentials.

Most of the children's parents don't have the money to send them to school, so they are  either at home or mining.

Mining in the DRC is also rife with dangers. The disused, often flooded industrial mines are the most hazardous. Deaths due to suffocation are common there. 

Closed mine

The Makala Mine in Ituri is in a tunnel leading to a hillside. It has been officially closed but workers risk their lives wading through water for four kilometres to break out rocks from a gold-rich seam.

Hours later they emerge from the mine carrying the rocks, but their efforts could yet prove futile.

Luc Likambo, the Head of the Makala Miners Association, laments the poor conditions miners must face.

"People should see how hard our work is; look at the water we have no machine to bring it out. We have no organisation. We need help to improve our conditions. We also need advice and technical help," he says.

The miners take the rocks from the mines to a makeshift workshop in Ituri where it is manually crushed and then sifted through to find what little gold they might contain. 

Mining for cold in the Congo is a thankless, nearly profitless job.

But with nothing else to do many in the DRC's northeast continue to toil in their blighted treasure-trove.

For the time being, their country's resources remain of little help to them.

Source: Al Jazeera