Thursday, September 06, 2007

Conditions grim in Sierra Leone’s diamond mines

It could have been a scene from a movie. Another long, hot day was coming to an end and the African sun was sinking into the dusty red earth. As the blue sky blushed, he knelt in front of me and held out a sparkling rock. But this was no proposal. And if it were a movie it could only have been "Blood Diamond".

Last year the Hollywood blockbuster brought the story of Sierra Leone's brutal diamond-fuelled war to the silver screen. The conflict ended in 2001 and since then the recovering West African nation has made great strides in combating illegal exports of blood diamonds.

Sierra Leone's stone exports are on track to reach £80 million ($160 million) this year - the highest level since the end of the war. But that's not to say the gem trade is cut and polished. Profit margins between dealers and miners remain stark, and conditions in the country's dirty malarial pits still leave much to be desired.

I had woken early that morning, long before the sun, for the three-hour drive to a diamond pit near Sierra Leone's border with Liberia. The night before, eating in a dusty, noisy chop house in town, I met a Sierra Leonean diamond dealer who had offered to take me to his mine.

As fat raindrops wash rubber plantations, we drive through cassava fields and clusters of dark green banana trees. Eventually we pull up at a traditional mud-hut village where groups of women sit singing as they cook rice beneath zinc verandas. From here it is a short hike to the diamond mine. As we walk, streams of ants zigzag beneath our feet and the diamond dealer talks.

"I have around 20 guys working for me" he says, sucking on a cigarette. "But it's so hard to get good miners. I had to fire someone yesterday for fighting over rice at lunchtime." he says, rolling his eyes. "We mine for everything here...red diamonds, gold diamonds, white diamonds, rubies... This country is full of natural riches."

Despite being blessed with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of minerals, Sierra Leone consistently ranks as one of the poorest countries in the world. The average salary for a labourer working in a diamond mine is 100,000 leones a month, or $30. That doesn't go very far around here.

At the mine I meet Thomas, a 48-year old labourer standing thigh-deep in the cool waters of the pit. He's in the middle of telling a joke when I arrive. "We don't earn very much, but we try to smile," he later tells me. "Maybe one day I'll find a big diamond and become a rich man."

Six other labourers are working hard, concealed behind a wall of thick elephant grass. It's early but the sun is already beating down. Thomas pulls off a ripped t-shirt and throws it down on a pile of sand.

I watch as the miners dig, sift and pan for diamonds from early morning to dusk. At noon, women from the nearby village bring communal bowls of Jollof rice, a traditional dish of chicken, tomato and onion.

One of the miners is named Borbor. "My name sounds like Poor Boy," he says with a cheeky smile. "When I become wealthy I'll change it to Rich Boy."

Everyone laughs, probably because we all know it isn't likely to happen anytime soon.

Government estimates say 200,000 to 300,000 labourers work in the country's diamond mines. Many of those are supporting families, holding onto the hope that they might strike it lucky one day. It's a constant gamble.

When a diamond is found, the rewards are meagre. Dusk is falling when Borbor spots a stone the size of a grain of rice. The diamond dealer pays him 10,000 leones ($3.50) for his effort. That might buy a few loaves of bread, a wedge of processed cheese, a box of matches and the most precious thing of all - a lift to work in the morning. The other miners will walk.

Later, as he blows a cloud of marijuana smoke into my face, the diamond dealer tells me he hopes to make around $15,000 from Borbor's diamond. He plans to sell it to a retailer in North America.

"Life is good," the dealer laughs. He raises his glass of sweet palm wine but I'm already thinking of Borbor and I don't meet his gaze.

The trade in conflict diamonds may be a thing of the past in Sierra Leone but conditions in the mines are far from good. As Sierra Leone prepares to go to the polls for the second round of presidential elections on September 8, all eyes are on the importance of curbing corruption and encouraging transparency.

Until miners like Borbor are paid fairly for their work, my glass will remain on the table. I can't think of anything to drink to.

Reuters AlertNet - Conditions grim in Sierra LeoneÂ’s diamond mines