Sunday, May 27, 2007

Peace but no prosperity in mining towns

Corporations replace soldiers but poverty remains entrenched

MOHAMED SANO gave up farming three years ago and came to seek his fortune in the muddy pits of Koidu, the capital of Sierra Leone's diamond industry. He hasn't found it. Nor have most of the 200,000 other miners in Sierra Leone who search for diamonds with a bucket, a spade and a sieve.

"If I have enough money I will stop," says the 25-year-old as he stands knee- deep in murky water, swilling another pile of gravel around and around in his sieve. It is unlikely. He says: "I see small, small diamonds but never a good one."

Yet Sano persist with a gamblers' tenacity, hoping that today he might find the tiny glinting stone that will change his life.

Nearby another former farmer, 29-year-old Aiah Manjah, shovels piles of mud and gravel out of Congo Creek. He has not seen a diamond in a fortnight, but maintains: "Digging is how we get fast money, farming is too slow." He has been digging for the past 10 years.

Life has improved for these miners since the end of a savage civil war five years ago, one that was dramatised in the recent film, Blood Diamond. Now there are no drugged-up teenagers pointing AK-47s at the miners while they dig, stealing their diamonds to fuel a crazed rebellion.

But with peace have come international mining companies eager for a share of Sierra Leone's riches, and their growing control of the mining industry is changing it beyond recognition.

"Mining is the main activity in Kono," says Jonathan Shaka, the government mines engineer for Kono. "The problem is the shortage of land."

The large mining companies swallow up concessions far larger than the one-acre patches of land that the grassroots miners dig.

The biggest company is Koidu Holdings, owned by Israeli diamond magnate Benny Steinmetz. The contrast between this operation and the local miners could not be starker. Its four square-kilometre concession produces 11,000 carats of rough gem-quality diamonds every month, hauled out of a pit which, at 76 metres deep, is the world's largest vertical pit-mining operation.

At current prices these are worth an estimated $25 million a year, a large chunk of the $136m that Sierra Leone exported officially in 2006.

By law 3% of diamond exports are taxed by government, and one quarter of this comes back to the mining communities in the form of public projects and infrastructure improvements. In reality, say local activists, the miners see few or no benefits.

Cecilia Mattie, coordinator for the National Advocacy Coalition on Extractives says: "There are a lot of handshakes with the chiefs, who are getting cars and houses while the community gets nothing. We have these mining companies in this country yet there is no electricity and poor water supply, so why are they here?"

Patrick Tongu, field supervisor for the National Movement for Justice and Development adds: "The community are the real losers in this."

In the centre of Koidu, the diamond wealth is as elusive as the stones themselves. Rutted roads run between broken houses with neither walls nor windows. These shells of buildings are interspersed with the tacky, brightly painted shops of Lebanese diamond dealers who have monopolised the valuation, buying and trading of the stones for years. Now these middlemen are being cut out.

"I'm closing down next year," says one Lebanese dealer who does not want to be named.

Over a cup of sludgy coffee he explains that, since the arrival of the big companies in 2003, his business of buying rough diamonds direct from small-scale miners and selling them to exporters in the capital, Freetown, has been destroyed.

Showing off a handful of gems worth $11,000, the dealer says that he is only able to find a third of the diamonds he could buy four years ago. After 15 years in Koidu he is thinking of moving across the border to Liberia, where there is less competition. He adds, with a shrug: "I know diamonds, and it's a gambling business."

But the ones taking the biggest gambles are the miners. Sweating under the scorching sun, they earn an average of $1.50 per day plus a small share in any big diamonds they find. The bulk goes to their employers: men who can afford the $300 annual licence fee.

In a mining area called Block 14 - a barren, muddy expanse of crumbling cliffs, crevices and ravines formed by decades of mining the rich alluvial river beds - a row of five men standing waist-high in green water wash the mud from the gravel in their wooden sieves before squinting into the trays.

Shaka says: "Diamonds can make you a millionaire overnight." In this, the world's second-poorest country, every one of the sweating mud-spattered men is hoping it will be him.

Link to Sunday Herald: International: International