Saturday, January 20, 2007

Diamond school helps miners of Sierra Leone

Babar Turay uses fake diamonds to help miners in Sierra Leone better judge the value of their gemstones. In a darkened room in the tiny village of Bandafayie, two dozen men sit discussing the four Cs of diamonds: cut, colour, clarity and carats.

They pass around shiny fake diamonds that look like novelty ice cubes, try on a jeweller's monocle and test out the terminology — "impurities" and "speculative" — that denotes a gemstone's worth.

These are not nervous grooms about to invest in a rock that will transform their girlfriends into their wives.

These are the miners who pull the world's most valuable stones from Sierra Leone's reddish ground and generally find themselves living in poverty.

"I never knew how to weigh them, how to even use the scale," said Ibrahim Jalloh, who has worked in the murky diamond mines for four years.

Most miners know nothing more about diamonds than how to watch for their milky shine while shifting and shaking their mud-spattered mining sieves.

Integrated Diamond Management Program head Babar Turay said: "If you go around to any of the mining sites right now and ask them how they determine the price, they'll tell you, 'well, we look at it and we think whether any like it have been sold in the past couple weeks and we go for that price'. They don't have the faintest idea what the price is."

Ignorance and exploitation are rife in these diamond fields, so the miners are being sent to a kind of "diamond university", to learn to fend for themselves against dealers and buyers who would otherwise cheat them.

The plight of the West African diamond miner was recently pushed into public attention with the release of the Leonardo DiCaprio film Blood Diamond, showing enslaved diggers frantically searching for stones that helped fund their captors' war.

Although the industry has launched a major offensive to convince prospective diamond buyers that the gems no longer fuel bloody conflicts, it's here where changes are needed.

Experts believe almost a billion carats of diamonds have been dug up from the dirt surrounding Kono, the epicentre of Sierra Leone's diamond region, since the stones were discovered in the 1930s. But there is no sign of wealth in the rough and tumble town.

Kono was the focus of the Revolutionary United Front rebels during the decade-long civil war; rivers changed routes and buildings toppled as diggers tore through the town.

Today, miners can only dig on licensed lands, which forces many Sierra Leoneans into partnership with the wealthy Lebanese diamond dealers who can afford the USD 40,000 ($A50,600) licence fee.

The agreements are often signed with an "X" and closed with a handshake. Many miners are illiterate and wouldn't understand a contract anyway. The financial arrangement means most miners feel compelled to sell their stones to their supporters, leaving them ripe for exploitation. "The supporters have better knowledge and business management and with these weapons — the finances and the know-how — they always exploit the ordinary diggers and miners," Mr Turay said.

His story illustrates the need for miner education.

A woman out planting potatoes lifted her bucket to return home and noticed a stone, which she pocketed and later presented to her pastor, wondering if it could be a diamond. He gave her 100,000 leones for it — about USD 30 — and then sold the marble-sized stone to a diamond dealer for USD 100,000. When the woman's chief got wind of it, he wanted his royalties, so he renegotiated and pushed the price up to USD 350,000. The dealer took the stone to be weighed, measured and classified by the Government Gold and Diamond Department in Freetown, where it determined the 156-carat stone was worth almost a USD 1 million.

A Saudi gem merchant bought it at auction for USD 1.2 million. "If you go to anyone, you have to have the information, otherwise you'll be cheated," Mr Turay said.

Tamba Matturie, who graduated last year from the two-week course, said he was able to negotiate a better price for a small coloured stone recently, since he finally understood the dealer's claim that the gem was "speculative". He could argue that although it had impurities on the outside, it could be a valuable jewel once cut.

Mr Jalloh, meanwhile, says he's become something of a consultant. In his isolated village, where the children are dressed in rags and the men sit idle, with nothing to do, other miners will phone to ask him to bring over his scales and size up a recent find.

"My father was a miner and he had a lot of diamonds, but because he had no knowledge of what he had, he was just throwing them away," he said.

Link to theage.com.au