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Back from the red zone: Cynthia McFadden on powerful reaction to child labor in Madagascar mica mines

The NBC News senior investigative correspondent reflects on the impact of her exclusive report about child labor in Madagascar, and the work that remains to be done.

I don’t know if it was the wife of an active-duty service member with a degree in public health who wrote saying she would go to the Madagascar mine sites and do anything she could help, or the 15-year-old who wrote asking how to send the kids Christmas presents that got me thinking about the good hearts of so many Americans.

There is the Malagasy-American business professor who wrote us and wants to help. The former communications director for Pope Francis who retweeted our story urging others to see it for the modern-day child slavery it is. A retired elementary school teacher wrote saying all she could think about was getting a picture book in the kids' hands.

Cynthia McFadden with children in Madagascar, where her recent report exposed the brutal reality of child labor in the country's mica mines.
Cynthia McFadden with children in Madagascar, where her recent report exposed the brutal reality of child labor in the country's mica mines. Christine Romo

We’ve heard from lots of parents, some of them here at NBC and many from around the country, who wrote saying they watched with their children. One dad who works at the Weather Channel said his little kids worried the Madagascar children don’t have enough water or skateboards.

One NBC News executive told me he watched with his 10-year-old son, who said he wanted to give the kids at the mine two weeks of his allowance. He and his dad went to the website and donated it.

When you set out to tell a story about people who live 7,000 miles away, you never know whether the audience back home will care. Will they see what you see? More than 10,000 kids without a childhood? Kids without enough to eat. Kids who can’t read or write and never will unless something changes.

Two senators we briefed on our investigation promised hearings and hard questions to very big companies about whether they are using mica mined by children in Madagascar.

Cynthia McFadden

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority issued a statement saying they want to know if their contract with a the largest train manufacturer in the world (CRRC, which uses mica from Madagascar and is owned by the Chinese government) will allow them to “exercise any level of control” on where the company gets their “supplies and materials”.

What they are really saying is they don’t want the back-breaking work of little kids in their trains. Will Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angles follow suit?

Cynthia McFadden

We know nearly 1.5 million people watched the story on or Many more watched on their phones after the folks at Apple News put it on the homepage of their site. Millions more saw it broadcast on TODAY and on Nightly News with Lester Holt.

We know thousands of people have already given tens of thousands of dollars to Terre des Hommes and UNICEF, who are on the ground helping the kids in Madagascar. A kindergarten class from Michigan reached out to UNICEF about organizing a fundraiser over the holidays.

Cynthia McFadden

Helping is hard. There is no infrastructure in this remote and forgotten corner of the world. There isn’t a post office or a police department. No hospital. No running water. No electricity. There are bandits with guns looking to steal cattle. And burned-out shelters from their rampages.

These are the reasons that some human rights groups call it the red zone. A place not safe to work.

Cynthia McFadden

We will stay on this story, in part by working with some of the academics and human rights advocates who have contacted us offering techniques to penetrate these notoriously opaque supply chains. Now that we have exposed this brutal reality, we feel an obligation to go further.

Lots of companies tell us they had no idea the mica they use was mined by kids. So I say to each of us, what I say to them: Now that we do know, what are we going to do about it? These children don’t have a voice in the world unless we raise ours.