Asia-Pacific

The Cruellest Earth: a snapshot of some of the world’s deadliest mines

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An Australian photographer has braved insurgencies, deadly gases and cave-ins to chronicle the lives and work practices of some of the world’s artisanal miners.

Four years ago, Australian photographer Hugh Brown spent three days waking up full of sadness. 

“I saw a four-year-old kid being killed in an accident,” he said. “And it was gruesome.

“It took me three days and I’d wake up with a tear in my eye not knowing why.”

Mr Brown said the only positive he could take from the experience was that he had seen first-hand how hard and dangerous life is on an Indian mine site.

“I think in the West we tried to hide from the realities that are going on in the world,” he said.

“And when we hide from realities we tend to become part of the problem because unless we’re offended or unless we’re shocked, we won’t do something about it.”

world's artisanal miners
A Burkina Faso gold mine bearing little resemblance to a modern gold mine in the developed world.
Hugh Brown

Mr Brown, 46, is working on a photographic book, titled 'In The Cruellest Earth', to expose the realities of artisanal mining.

He has photographed sulphur miners in Java working in active volcanoes, Pakistani miners hanging off ropes hundreds of metres in the air, and Bolivian miners praying to “El Tio”, the devil, to keep them safe as they mine the Mountain that Eats Men.

The silver mine is hundreds of years old and has reportedly claimed millions of lives. When it rains, there is real fear of collapse.

world's artisanal miners
A Bolivian miner, his lips stained by coca leaves, in the Mountain that Eats Men.
Hugh Brown

There are the tragedies: the Javanese worker whose foot was ravaged by sulphuric acid, the Bolivian miner who lost both his legs when a fully loaded cart ran over them, and the death of the four-year-old Indian child.

Mr Brown said he was not trying to have this kind of mining shut down, but to demonstrate what much of the world was doing to survive.

The work is done by hand, with no protective equipment, in dangerous environments and for little pay. For many people, it’s all they have.

world's artisanal miners
Javanese sulphur miners haul nearly one and a half times their body weight of sulphur out of an active volcano.
Hugh Brown

Their toil also ends up in developed countries.

According to the World Bank, 80 per cent of the world's sapphires and 20 per cent of its gold comes from artisanal mining.

“Everyone of us who has gold here in the Western World has some connection back to these people,” Mr Brown said.

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“So we’re actually funding these people and if we take this funding away from these people what are they going to do, what are they going to eat?

“It’s easy for us because we live in a wealthy society - the top one per cent of the top one per cent of global wealth - these people have nothing.”

world's artisanal miners
There are no heavy haulers at this Indian coal mine.
Hugh Brown

Mr Brown said he was only half way through his book.

He is also planning a documentary and international exhibition.

His next trip is to a secret location in South America.

world's artisanal miners
Photographer Hugh Brown
SBS News

Insight (2015): When Mining Comes to Town. How do farmers and miners best co-exist on Australian soil?

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