Interactive: A Diamond's Journey: Grim reality tarnishes glitter

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updated 6/26/2009 7:57:07 PM ET 2009-06-26T23:57:07

The search for diamonds is not exactly easy. Many miners and diamond diggers in sub-Saharan Africa travel great distances to find work and submit to gruelingly long hours for low wages – or sometimes no wages – in substandard conditions.

The informal mining industry is where workers tend to be most exploited. In the Wild West atmosphere of many informal diamond mines, the quest for the “big find” – and the financial gain it promises – is the all-encompassing goal, and all other issues of morality or civic responsibility go out the window. 

Child labor has long been a problem in informal diamond mines, especially during times of war. Children have often been exploited to do excavation work because they are small enough to be lowered into small, narrow pits by ropes to dig out sacks of dirt, which is in turn washed by other children in search of diamonds.

During Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war, children were often used as soldiers and workers in the rich Koidu diamond mines that funded the country’s rebels. USAID launched the Kono Peace Diamond Alliance in 2002 to try to improve the working conditions in the mines – particularly for children. But it is an uphill battle across Africa to get children who are either family breadwinners, or fending for themselves or conscripted into slave-like labor to stop working and go to school.

Under the best circumstances, mining is fraught with dangers. There is always the possibility of mudslides, collapsing walls, drowning and other accidents for miners searching for diamonds in alluvial deposits. In Mbuji-Mayi, Democratic Republic of Congo, illegal miners caught in mining concessions can be shot and killed. In August 2006 the BBC reported that six miners were shot and killed in a mine near the town for illegal mining.

While the development of the diamond industry is seen as key to the economic recovery of war-torn countries like Sierra Leone and Angola, massive environmental degradation is also a byproduct of the rapid rush to gain riches – particularly in informal, unregulated mining.

Land is often cleared and vegetated areas dug up to create open pit mines in the rushed search for diamond deposits, leaving them unsuitable for other farming activities. Informal mining in hilly areas also leads to erosion – and, in turn, flooding. The salt, heavy minerals and chemical products from mining equipment can run off into rivers and pollute vital water sources for mining communities and people living downstream. 

The boom-and-bust lifestyle in many mining towns has also been blamed for the spread of HIV/AIDS. A transitory work force plus a thriving sex trade in many mining towns, often leads to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Debswana Diamond Co., a joint venture between Botswana’s government and De Beers, has taken progressive moves to attack the spread of HIV/AIDS among mine workers and in Botswana
Botswana is often cited as the best example of diamond mining’s benefiting an entire nation. Botswana gained independence from Britain in 1966, and geologists discovered diamonds in 1967. Diamond mining has dominated the economy ever since – making up one-third of the GDP and 70-80 percent of export earnings. Sound management, fiscal discipline and the lowest level of corruption in sub-Saharan Africa have helped Botswana develop from one of the world’s poorest nations to a middle-income country with a per capita GDP of $10,500 in 2005.

But Botswana has suffered acutely from the scourge of AIDS. An estimated 37 percent of the population of just 1.6 million suffers from HIV/AIDS. The economic boon from the diamond industry has helped fund one of Africa’s most progressive HIV/AIDS programs.

Debswana Diamond Co., a joint venture between Botswana’s government and De Beers, was the first company in the world to provide antiretroviral drugs to its employees, their spouses, children and former employees and has expanded the program to make antiretroviral drugs available to everyone in the country. Revenue from diamonds has also allowed the government to provide free education to every child under 18.  by being the first company in the world to provide antiretroviral drugs to all its employees.

The international diamond industry has made moves to improve the conditions of informal mines and to bring them in line with the formal diamond industry with the start of the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI)
The Diamond Development Initiative (DDI) was created in 2005 as a result of a meeting of government, civil society and diamond industry representatives like De Beers, as well as the non-governmental organization Global Witness, to address the problems of informal diamond mining and try to bring it into the mainstream diamond industry and the Kimberley Process. DDI’s goal is to address the poor living and working conditions of the people at the core of the diamond industry – the estimated 1 million diamond diggers. DDI hopes to convert diamonds from a means for war – as they were in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola – into a catalyst for economic development.

By educating diggers on the fair market value of stones, creating better access to artisanal mining equipment and lobbying for better labor laws to reduce the exploitation of child laborers in the mining fields, DDI hopes to help diggers get better prices for their stones and improve their lives and communities.

USAID has also funded the Peace Diamond Alliance in Sierra Leone since 2002 to help improve the diamond industry and make sure that profits from the industry improve communities, instead of serving as a source of revenue for war. in 2005.

Sources: BBC, Amnesty International, Diamond Development Initiative, IRINnews.org

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