Venezuelan children work in a puddle
Venezuelan children work in a puddle of muddy water while searching for gold in an open-pit mine AFP

At 10 years old, Martin cannot read, but he is an old hand at detecting traces of the gold he and his young cousins dig for at an open-pit mine in southeastern Venezuela.

In the town of El Callao, extracting gold from soil starts as a kid's game, but soon becomes a full-time job that human rights activists slam as dangerous exploitation.

Small and agile, the children's size helps them shimmy into narrow wells to hack out muddy earth, hoping it will contain gold -- which has become ever more precious as Venezuela's oil production has plummeted.

Doubled over, they carry heavy bags of earth under the relentless sun to murky puddles of water where they rinse it in wooden trays.

Martin explains that "whatever is gold gets stuck to the mercury," a poisonous and environmentally toxic substance they use for its ability to extract gold from ore.

He is one of around a thousand children in the region involved in illegal gold mining, a booming industry in the resource-rich country that has been battered by multiple economic crises.

Martin -- not his real name -- lives in El Peru, a nearby hamlet. He has never been to school.

Carlos Trapani of the Cecodap children's rights NGO, told AFP that the backbreaking work and its associated dangers have become "normalized" in these communities.

Despite what Trapani describes as "the worst conditions," Martin says he "would rather get gold than go to school."

"My dad says that money comes from work," he told AFP, in an interview granted with the consent of his parents.

"With the money I earn here I buy my things: shoes, clothes, sometimes some sweets."

Around a thousand children are working in illegal mines in the region, according to the private Catholic university UCAB in neighboring Guyana.

"It's a matter of survival," said Eumelis Moya, coordinator of the university's office of human rights.

"People have postponed their aspirations to eat, to meet their needs."

Venezuela has been going through a serious economic crisis since 2013, which experts blame on political mismanagement, US sanctions and an overreliance on its massive oil reserves.

GDP has contracted by 80 percent, and hyperinflation has eroded purchasing power. Some seven million of the country's 30 million people have left in search of a better life elsewhere.

In 2017, President Nicolas Maduro vowed to rescue the economy by focusing on the country's other mineral resources, saying it could have "the biggest gold reserve in the world."

Since then, there has been what the International Crisis Group termed an "illegal mining bonanza" across the south of the country, where criminal groups -- including Colombian guerrillas -- run most operations, sowing terror in local communities.

"It has scared me when the shootings start and there are dead people," says Gustavo, another young miner, aged 11.

According to a 2021 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) "much of the gold earned by small miners ultimately ends up in the hands of the military and political elite."

In July, Maduro ordered the deployment of the armed forces to dislodge illegal miners, and authorities have reported the destruction of some camps.

The mining -- much of which takes place in the Venezuelan Amazon -- has had a devastating impact on the environment and Indigenous communities.

In some parts of Venezuela, including the town of El Callao, grams of gold are used as currency in local businesses, rather than the unstable bolivar.

This can prove advantageous for child miners like Gustavo, who sweeps up dirt outside a liquor store in El Peru with his brothers, hoping a drunken customer may have dropped some gold.

"The other day, I got a gram (worth about $50)," he told AFP. "I gave the money to my mom to buy food."

He has been mining since the age of six, and doesn't go to school either.

Children in Venezuela, who make up a third of the population, have borne the brunt of the crisis, with many left behind after their parents emigrate. Some public schools are barely functional due to low teacher salaries.

Trapani said that when the economic crisis reached a peak in 2018, it wasn't just school children heading for the mines, but also teachers, after quitting their day jobs.

Gustavo's mother, 28, told AFP her kids did not return to school after the Covid-19 lockdown, but she hopes they will eventually.

"There are always risks in the mines."

Activists say Venezuela's dire economic crisis
Activists say Venezuela's dire economic crisis has forced children and even professionals to join the illegal mining industry AFP
Children shimmy into narrow wells
Small and agile, the children's size helps them shimmy into narrow wells to hack out muddy earth, hoping it will contain gold AFP
Illegal gold mines
Illegal gold mines have sprung up across southern Venezuela, many under the control of criminal groups AFP
Toxic mercury
Toxic mercury is used to separate the gold from ore AFP
A Venezuelan miner shows rocks
A Venezuelan miner shows rocks containing traces of gold that will later be processed by hand in a mill AFP
Children in Venezuela
Children in Venezuela, who make up a third of the population, have borne the brunt of the economic crisis, with many public schools barely functional due to low teacher salaries AFP