TARANTO-BAS, Madagascar — A child is crawling in the field from a pit and covering his eyes from the sun.
The boy has been working inside the pit for the last several hours. He happily holds up an example of his work now above ground: a silver plate of mica, the iridescent stone shimmering in the light of the afternoon.
The kid is 10, but he’s not going to school. For much of the day — and sometimes through the night — he works creeping through pitch-black tunnels inside the abandoned mine, digging his hands through the dirt, gathering and arranging mica fragments.
The resources he picks up will quickly make their way through a complex supply chain from Africa to Asia before arriving in millions of goods that wind up in America — electronics, devices, even trains.
“My mother’s not making enough money,” says the boy, Manjoraza’s name. “I will help her make money.”
Manjoraza is among thousands of children employed in the mica industry in Madagascar — an informal group of small workers who go mostly unnoticed in a world known for its lush forests, vanilla plants, and lemur populations.
There, where the mica supply chain of Madagascar ends, the boy and his parents are trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty, abuse, and child labor, spanning decades. Kids like Manjoraza see their present and future as spinning around the fragments of mica found in the pits below without clean water, access to health care, or education.
Mica is the name given to a category of minerals that are elastic and solid in layers at once.
Mica is known for applying sparkle to beauty products and colors, a long-standing tradition of the cosmetics industry. But in the telecommunications and automotive fields, it is also valued because of its ability to transmit electrical energy without overheating, even under extreme temperatures.
It is mined by hand in a group of locations in the remote south of the country in Madagascar, an island nation of 25.5 million inhabitants just off the southeast coast of Africa. According to UN Commodity Market Estimates in 2016 Report, Madagascar exceeded India as the most significant global exporter of sheet mica, the category used widely in the telecommunications and automotive industries.
In recent years, Mica mining in India has created concern over the use of child labor and unsafe conditions. But the mica industry in Madagascar has received no attention as it has become a vital target for foreign manufacturers.
With the Dutch child protection charity Terre des Hommes, NBC News traveled more than 400 miles across Madagascar’s rural south. It observed thousands of children working in unsafe and poorly ventilated mica dumps, as well as processing centers, along with other family members.
A study of hundreds of shipping documents showed how the vast majority of mica extracted in Madagascar travels to China and ends up in parts of American products such as hair dryers, stereo speakers, and batteries.
Phlogopite is one of two classes of real commercial interest of the 37 forms of natural mica.
Source: SOMO and NBC News Research Center SOMO and NBC
Yet interviews with executives in the mica industry in Madagascar have shown that the prevalence of child labor is well known but rejected mainly as a by-product of extreme poverty.
Taken an image appears of children as young as four years of age who conduct long hours of labor-intensive work under sometimes dangerous conditions to extract a mineral. Whose value will be elevated nearly 500 times as long as it leaves the shores of Madagascar?
“Working in mining is one of the worst forms of child labor,” said Claire van Bekkum, Terre des Hommes senior project director. “We are health-wise and safety-wise in a dangerous situation.”
Terre des Hommes released Monday a first-of-its-kind study on the mining sector in Madagascar, detailing the industry’s rampant child labor and poverty loop.
The group found that in the mica business, at least 10,000 children work. Most feed only at night and suffer from grown-up afflictions: back pain due to hunched over long hours, as well as nausea due to heat and lack of water or oxygen in the mines.
“The kids we met excuse the job because they don’t get to eat anything, because they’re poor or because their parents don’t have enough cash to keep them to school,” says the report. “A minority of children, conditioned by routine, also believe that their living and working conditions are normal.”
In the span of 9 days, NBC News followed the mica campaign over Madagascar in an attempt to shine a light on who does the work and whose funding it best serves.
The quest started in a country’s lawless region — a location known as “zone rouge,” or red zone.