Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Sierra Leone relearns diamond mining

Diamond office in Bo Knee deep in brown water Mohammed Kamara shakes his large circular sieve as a colleague pours in endless buckets of mud and gravel. This has been the daily routine for thousands of miners in Sierra Leone's eastern district of Kono since the 1930s, when diamonds were first found in the West African country. As diamonds are so easily smuggled out figures are hard to come by, but some experts have suggested that since the 1930s as many as 70 million carats of diamonds have been mined in Sierra Leone. However, the miners and people of Kono have hardly benefited, with a common daily wage of less than 50 US cents plus two cups of rice. Diamond knowledge In a wooden hut, normally serves as a video hall, 20 men struggle with a two hour Diamond Identification and Classification exam. The last time Komba Mejor sat in a classroom was more than 20 years ago, but having just completed a two week course he wants to pass on his newly gained diamond knowledge. "I now understand more about the value of the diamonds and if I pass the exam I will teach my brothers and sisters so we can get more money from the diamonds," he says. Part of the exam is a 15 minute practical. A small generator is fired up (electricity is rare in Kono) and with the help of a small lamp and an eye piece, Komba and his colleagues identify and weigh a variety of diamonds. This is all part of a programme funded by USAid, aimed at helping the miners gain a better understanding of the industry and avoid being ripped off by middlemen. "The monopoly of information has really deprived the local miners and subjected them to poverty," says Babar Touray, of the US funded Integrated Diamond Management Programme. "Those foreigners who came in and were knowledgeable about diamonds didn't give the chance to indigenes to get the information and know-how to determine the price of diamonds, so they have always been at the mercy of foreign buyers." Corruption and war But one of the course instructors, Mohammed Jabi, says the miners' newly acquired knowledge is not going down well with the diamond dealers in town. Diamond miner studying Many hope to use their new diamond knowledge to teach others "We asked the dealers to give us diamond samples to use in the practicals, but after some time they learnt we were trying to increase the awareness of the miners and the diggers so they are now refusing to give us samples," he says. During British colonial days, the mining giant De Beers was granted exclusive mining rights in the country, although illicit mining later became rampant. The industry was nationalised in 1970, but Sam Koroma, who works for the British-funded Diamond Sector Project, says mistakes were made. "The problem was the speed we went into nationalisation, it was not well researched as we were in a hurry," he says.

"So the policies in place were not properly looked at in order to pick out the good ones and throw out the bad ones. When we took over, corruption set in at the highest level." And after the corruption came war. Forced labour Greed fuelled the conflict, which devastated Sierra Leone during the 1990s. The diamond fields in the east of the country were seized by the brutal rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Using forced labour, the diamonds were exchanged for weapons and cash. During a break from sieving, Mohammed Kamara remembers how he was ordered to mine for the RUF from 1993 to 2000. "If you refused to go, you would be severely beaten or even killed. Every blessed day you went to the mine you found diamonds. But we got nothing. At times the rebels gave us food for the day if they felt like it - other times nothing." Mohammed, who struggles to support his wife and two children from his work, recently joined a mining co-operative, giving him above average daily payments and an agreed share of the value of any diamonds sold. The first effort was unsuccessful and the private backers, who had invested close to $100,000 in the co-operatives, made a loss. But lessons were learnt and this could yet prove to be a way of seeing the country's diamond proceeds more evenly distributed. Payments Britain's Department for International Development is working with the government of Sierra Leone to make the industry more transparent and accountable, while De Beers has been offering some technical training. Since the end of the war, official diamond exports have risen sharply each year - from $26m in 2001 to $141m in 2005. The government's royalty is 3%, but of that figure only 0.7 % goes directly into the government's coffers. Official records show that from the last two years of the diamond tax, around $2.5m should have been returned to develop the diamond mining communities. But that money was paid to the local chiefs, and very little reached their people. The payments to the chiefs were recently stopped, but the chiefs are politically powerful and with what could be a closely fought presidential election just a few months away, there may be pressure to resume the payments to keep the chiefs on side.

Source: BBC NEWS | Business | Sierra Leone relearns diamond mining