Coated in hope and penury: The story of Sierra Leone’s artisan miners

Artisanal miners in the West African state are struggling for crumbs in the $250m annual diamond industry.

One of the many diamond shops in Koidu, Sierra Leone
One of the many diamond shops in Koidu, Sierra Leone [Credit: Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

Koidu, Sierra Leone – By late morning in Seidu, a remote village in the Koidu area of eastern Sierra Leone, the cracks, scrapes and thuds of metal shovels being plunged into rock-filled earth ring out again and again.

It is the sound of a dozen miners – many wearing worn-down baseball caps and shredded T-shirts covered in holes – desperately ploughing this opencast pit filled with reddish mud in search of a fortune.

“You could get a big stone any time,” said Tamba James, a 40-year-old miner who switched from farming six years ago. “Farming is slow to earn, even if you work hard. But mining is different. I just pray to God that I will catch a big one.”

Hundreds of thousands of artisanal diamond miners like James take their shovels and sieves each morning to the mineral-rich terrain in Sierra Leone’s Wild East region surrounding Koidu, seen as the capital of diamond mining in West Africa.

Ever since the so-called “Star of Sierra Leone” – at 969 carats, the fourth-largest diamond to have ever been unearthed – was discovered in a river near Koidu in 1972, the entire region has been enthralled by the precious gemstone.

Since then, four of the world’s 21 largest diamonds have been found in Sierra Leone – behind only South Africa – and the country’s diamond industry is an estimated $250m a year.

At the same time, a fifth of the diamonds sold in Europe come from artisanal mines, believed to often be smuggled via neighbouring Liberia and The Gambia.

But flawed governance and widespread corruption mean that only a tiny fraction of this immense wealth benefits locals, one of the world’s poorest populations.

In a 2019 report, anti-corruption nonprofit Transparency International concluded that “hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the extraction of diamonds continue to leave … the country, without benefitting anyone in the community”.

And now, after decades of immense extraction, diamonds are proving harder to come by. “Before you could go behind your house and pick the diamonds,” said Tamba Dkonday-Pessima, a local chief in Koidu. “Now you work and work and see nothing.”

Miner in Koidu, Sierra Leone
A miner in Koidu taking a short break from work, [Credit: Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

‘Lack of regulation and oversight’

Experts say a two-tier system of diamond mining has since emerged: industrial, deep mines, which are very closely guarded and run only by wealthy foreign companies, and the informal, unregulated artisanal sector, which involves an estimated 300,000 miners, including women and children.

“Diggers face exploitation, human rights abuses and extreme poverty,” said Roy Maconachie, a professor at the University of Bath who has been researching natural resource governance in Sierra Leone since 2003. “Those issues come down to a serious, continued lack of regulation and oversight in the sector.”

However, in the face of abject poverty and few job opportunities, diamond miners in Koidu say that they have little choice. “It’s difficult to get food to eat, we have no clothes to wear, no medical facilities,” said James, a father of five.

At the heart of the artisanal mine set-up is a “supporter” system where investors – both foreign and Sierra Leonean – supply food, tools and sometimes a tiny stipend to miners in exchange for work. Fees are also given to landowners when necessary.

But when diamonds are found, the miners receive only a tiny fraction of the real value. James and other miners in Seidu told Al Jazeera that they are paid just 8,000 Sierra Leone leone ($0.65) by their supporter for working eight hours daily, digging up mud, then extracting and sifting through gravel.

Their supporter declined to be interviewed. Others in the region said they received 30,000 SLL ($2.43) a day.

“The wage is very low,” said Sahr Festus Gbanya, 26, who was unable to find any other job after finishing an art degree at Koidu University. “It’s a struggle. But there’s nothing else for me to do.”

Gbanya, who said he sometimes sleeps at the mine, said the last time the miners found anything was a month ago –  when they uncovered a diamond that had 35 percent of a carat (the metric for diamond weight) and that it was sold for 30,000 SLL ($2.4).

“Nobody knows about the future,” he adds. “If we find a 50 or 100-carat diamond, things could be better.”

Uncut diamonds being sold by dealers in Koidu, Sierra Leone
Uncut diamonds being sold by dealers in Koidu, Sierra Leone [Credit: Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

Cycles of poverty

Human rights campaigners call the supporter system a form of “debt bondage” and “indentured labour” that sees miners trapped in cycles of poverty.

“Because miners are in dying need, the supporters take advantage of them,” said Arthur Kargbo, lead for natural resources management at the Koidu-based nonprofit Advocate for Social Justice and Development. “They might pay a bag of rice for the use of land that is worth millions. It’s completely unjust.”

Alex Komba Fomba, a programme coordinator for Youth Empowerment for Advocacy, Human Rights and Development in Sierra Leone, a local civil society group, said miners are made to work in hazardous conditions without protective gear. “The mines are being run like a mafia,” he added. “Supporters are coercing the miners.”

Critics say the unregulated, informal nature of the artisanal diamond industry in Sierra Leone is being driven by wider vested interests that profit from the system as it is. “A lot of money is being made from this exploitation,” says Maconachie.

Even after huge recent discoveries, such as a 709-carat diamond found in 2017, locals in Koidu say there have been no improvements to infrastructure such as roads, hospitals, and the electricity grid.

“When that discovery happened, people rejoiced. We thought it was a big blessing,” said James. “People phoned their friends and families. But months later there was nothing. It disappeared and nobody benefitted.”

“The wealth goes to the foreigners,” Dkonday-Pessima told Al Jazeera. “What’s coming back to Sierra Leone is very little.”

The city of Koidu has dozens of diamond shops – one on almost every street corner – yet most lie empty; relics of a former boom town.

At the same time, the region’s landscape has been utterly transformed: forests have been torn down; endless pools of polluted water – breeding grounds for mosquitoes and the cause of regular drownings – and huge hills of gravel have been produced through the process – in spite of the fact that by law, mines must be rehabilitated once decommissioned.

Some say the civil war, which resulted in 75,000 deaths and displacement of half the population between 1991 and 2002, was fuelled by diamonds. The gemstones came to be dubbed “blood diamonds” after rebels used them to buy weapons.

“Diamonds are meant to be a blessing,” said campaigner Fomba. “But they are a curse. They played an important role in the civil war. They led to grievances and fighting.”

Yet those involved in the trade disagree about the effect of the gem that has become synonymous with ultimate luxury. “It’s improved the lives of many people,” says Ismail Turay, a diamond dealer who has been working in Koidu for 20 years. “Koidu has been built on diamonds.”

But few disagree on the need for greater support for miners and formalisation of the sector.

“The miners are only paid when they find diamonds and they don’t know the real value of the winnings,” said Fomba, who intends to hold sessions to educate miners on fair prices. “They will give them away for a pittance. The value of diamonds [is] shrouded in secrecy. We want people to benefit from their own empowerment.”

Others believe improvements to licensing for artisanal miners – deemed expensive and bureaucratic – as well as the formation of worker cooperatives could vastly improve conditions. “Currently, regulations are there but they don’t work,” says Kargbo. “If we improve the system, diamonds can drive sustainable development in Sierra Leone.”

The National Mines Agency did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In Kamara, a village on the outskirts of Koidu, young and old continue in the fields, desperately hoping for salvation.

For some, any hope has all but vanished. Chernor Bundu, a 60-year-old Arabic teacher who has five children, has been mining for 25 years. A few years ago, he says, he found a 10-carat diamond – but it went straight to his supporter. The most recent find, a few days ago, was a tiny diamond that earned him 4,000 SLL ($0.32).

“It’s difficult to pay for food,” says Bundu, whose wife abandoned him due to his inability to earn enough for the family. “But I must continue. God will provide for me one day.”

Source: Al Jazeera