3:26am

Sat November 17, 2012
Africa

Sierra Leone Holds A Vote, Not A War, On Diamonds

Originally published on Fri November 23, 2012 11:53 am

Sierra Leone's "blood diamonds" helped fuel atrocities in the impoverished West African nation in the 1990s. The war has now been over for a decade, and the country's most valuable resource is no longer known as the product of a conflict. But it remains a contentious issue.

Voters in Sierra Leone went to the polls on Nov. 17 to pick a president and the parliament, and the country's diamonds were a central issue. Opposition parties accused the government of mortgaging lucrative diamond fields for a "pittance," while President Ernest Bai Koroma boasted of his "ambitious" efforts to transform the industry.

As of Friday, there were still no results in what was seen as a tightly contested election. The BBC reported that about 10 percent of the votes had been set aside because of alleged fraud. It was not clear when the results would be announced.

The diamond-mining Kono district, in the eastern part of the country, reflected the country's bitter irony: It's resource rich, but poverty abounds as development has not kept pace with other parts of the country.

In Koidu, the capital of Kono, women and children stand knee deep in the fields on either side of the dusty potholed roads.

Mounds of dug-up dirt dot the landscape around them.

With stooped backs, their eyes are down, scanning the huge sieves in their hands as they hope to spot the unmistakable sparkling of a diamond in the muddy water.

One of the miners gets lucky. He pulls a diamond the size of a grain of rice from the river, dirty and barely recognizable from the multifaceted stones that sparkle in jewelry store cases.

"When you put it in the water it can shine," he says.

It's a good thing, but it won't make him rich.

This diamond, he reckons, will get him 100,000 leones — around $20. Depending on the carat and clarity, it could fetch upward of $2,000 at a jewelry store in the U.S.

Koidu is the heartland of diamond mining in West Africa — two of the world's biggest diamonds were found here — but it was also home to some of the worst fighting on the continent. During the decade-long conflict that ended in 2002, rebel factions fought for control of the diamonds.

But since 2003, after signing on to a regulatory scheme to stop the flow of conflict diamonds, the Sierra Leone diamond trade has come to be seen as legitimate and is part of the government's pitch to attract foreign investment.

Ten years after the war ended, there is peace in Sierra Leone. But the scars are still visible here in Koidu — no roads, electricity only for those who can afford generators, and little or no running water.

"It's not easy. It's difficult because I have my children, I have my wife, and I don't have any money to give them," says 35-year-old Mohamed Challey.

Challey gets paid 1,000 leones every morning — about 25 cents — plus one meal a day. If he finds a diamond, he has to sell it to his boss, and then he gets half.

"We need more help because things are very hard for us here," Challey says. "There are no jobs. My father is here. My mother is here. I don't have any money to give them unless I do mining."

Despite its natural resources, Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. With a growing youth population and massive unemployment, the U.N. estimates two-thirds of the population live on less than $1.25 a day.

For thousands of people like Challey, who has little education, digging and sifting through the dirt searching for diamonds is the only way out of poverty.

But with almost no regulations for the small-scale mining industry, both the people and the diamonds are left open to exploitation, says Lesley Nmboka of the National Chairman of the Campaign for Just Mining.

"You know it's actually the people who have money that will normally pay a pittance to the locals to do all the dirty jobs for them to go tracing or looking for the diamonds," says Nmboka. "You can still see poverty bravely rearing its ugly head in these communities."

There are new roads and electricity in the major cities. But the challenge of transforming the country's natural resources into development for its people still remains.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We'll stay in West Africa and look now at the diamonds produced in Sierra Leone. They were once known as blood diamonds and helped fund vicious civil wars both Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia. Those wars are long over, and the diamonds have lost their stigma. But as Tamasin Ford reports from eastern Sierra Leone, life remains grim for the people who mine them.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

TAMASIN FORD, BYLINE: Men, women and children stand knee-deep in the fields on either side of the dusty potholed roads. Mounds of dug-up dirt dot the landscape around them. With stooped backs, their eyes are down, scanning the huge sieves in their hands, hoping to spot the unmistakable sparkling of a diamond in the muddy water.

And this is a diamond?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes, this is diamond.

FORD: And is this a good quality diamond?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: When you put it in the water, it will shine.

FORD: Oh, but for how much money?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One hundred thousand Leones.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (unintelligible)

FORD: That's around 20 U.S. dollars. For this diamond, the size of a grain of rice, depending on the carat and clarity, it could fetch anything from $2,000 at a jewelry store in the States. Koidu is the heartland of diamond mining in West Africa. Two of the world's biggest diamonds were found right here. But it's also home to some of the worst fighting on the continent. During the decade-long conflict that ended in 2002, rebel factions fought for control of the diamonds. Ten years on from the war, there is peace in Sierra Leone, but the scars are still acutely visible here in Koidu - no roads, electricity only for those who can afford generators, and little or no running water.

MOHAMED CHALLEY: It's not easy. It's difficult, because I have children. I have my wife. I don't have any money to give them.

FORD: Thirty-five-year-old Mohamed Challey gets paid a thousand Leones every morning - about 25 cents - plus a meal a day. If he finds a diamond, he has to sell it to his boss, and then he gets half.

CHALLEY: We need more help, because things are very hard for us here.

FORD: What sort of help?

CHALLEY: Well, development, more jobs. No jobs. My father is here. My mother is here. I don't have any money to give them unless I do mining.

FORD: Despite its natural resources, Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. With a growing youth population and massive unemployment, the U.N. estimates two-thirds of the population live on less than a $1.25 a day. For thousands of people like Mohamed, who have little education, digging and sifting through the dirt is their only way out of poverty. But with almost no regulation in the artisanal mining industry, people and the diamonds are left open to exploitation. Lesley Nmboka is the national chairman of the Campaign for Just Mining.

LESLEY NMBOKA: You know, it's actually the people that have money that will normally pay pittance to the locals to do all the dirty jobs for them, to go tracing or looking for the diamonds. You can still see poverty bravely, you know, rearing its ugly head in these communities.

FORD: Progress is happening in Sierra Leone. There are new roads, electricity in the major cities. But the challenge of really transforming the country's natural resources into development for everyone still remains. For NPR News, I'm Tamasin Ford in Kono, eastern Sierra Leone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related program: