Saturday, January 27, 2007

Oscar-nominated film unearths curse of Sierra Leone's 'blood diamonds

This time, as all too often, his search for the trademark opacity which would tell him he had found a diamond was fruitless.

But even if he had unearthed a gemstone, he and thousands of other small-scale miners in Sierra Leone fear that Hollywood's portrayal of their country's civil war could now rob them of their livelihoods.

Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio's latest film, opens across Britain today, charting the trade in illegally-mined and sold gemstones during Sierra Leone's 11-year conflict, which ended in 2002. Bootleg copies of the film are already showing here, on flickering screens in tin-shack video halls. Few are impressed.

"It's true that it shows the way things were during the war, but people here are so worried that others in the West will think that is the way it is now,"' said Mr Foray, 41, in Koidu, 210 miles northeast of Freetown.

"It is not. The people who are mining now are not the rebels; we are true miners trying to make money for feeding the family and school fees."

Koidu, the capital of the country's Kono district, is Sierra Leone's diamond mining heartland, peppered with craters excavated by hand by the town's 100,000 artisan miners. Beneath hills covered in coconut palms and along muddy riverbanks lie some of the richest diamond deposits in the world. Working mines already earn Sierra Leone more than £75 million a year.

It was this easily smuggled commodity that brought the Revolutionary United Front, to Kono, in 1991. The rebels forced thousands of civilians into work gangs harvesting the stones, which they handed to Charles Taylor, neighbouring Liberia's infamous warlord, in return for arms. They earned an estimated £60 million a year to fund their campaign. The illicit trade is also believed to have helped al-Qa'eda fund the September 11 attacks.

Progress has been made since the war ended. Organisations like the Peace Diamond Alliance are teaching miners how to spot valuable stones and make sure they are not cheated.

Mr Foray and 34 friends have banded together into a makeshift cooperative to mine two 100ft by 200ft plots.

The labour is shared, and in return, each man shares the profit from whatever is unearthed. But not much is found. The team last sold a diamond a week ago, a tiny sliver less than half a carat. They each earned less than £2. Far higher profits are still being made from illegal sales in West Africa. The UN estimates that rebels in the north of Ivory Coast have sent £12.5 million worth of illicit gemstones into Ghana, where they are certified as clean and sold on.

Those selling legitimate diamonds face a backlash from consumers worried that they cannot be sure the gem they are buying is ''clean".

Ansumana Turay, of the PDA, said: "People must not stop buying because they are worried they are blood diamonds. That would be the worst thing for Sierra Leone."

Link to Telegraph | News | Oscar-nominated film unearths curse of Sierra Leone's 'blood diamonds