Bloodless Diamonds?

“It’s not diamonds that are the problem,” says Ali, a Lebanese diamond dealer in eastern Sierra Leone. “Diamonds are just stones. It’s people that are the problem.”

Sierra Leone has some of the highest quality diamonds in the world. Like a lottery winner who wastes his fortune and sinks into misery, however, the country has been unable to cope with its windfall. “Blood diamonds” have been blamed for causing its horrific civil war, which saw rebel militias, Liberian thugs, mercenaries, Sierra Leone’s army, and UN and Nigerian “peacekeepers” killing and maiming in a desperate struggle to gain control of the gem trade.

Since the war finished in 2002, Sierra Leone has languished among the world’s poorest countries, with nothing to show for its rich treasure trove of minerals. Economists see it as a classic example of the resource curse, which plagues many poor nations endowed with valuable natural commodities: mineral wealth allows governments to neglect the rest of the economy, enrich themselves, and ignore those outside their circles, forcing the excluded to resort to violence to obtain a share of the loot.

But the failure of resource-rich nations is not inevitable. Botswana has thrived on the back of its diamond mines. South Africa, brimming with gold and diamonds, is Africa’s largest economy. Australia, another diamond producer, doesn’t do too badly.

Earlier this week we spent the day at a diamond mine near Kenema. Johnny, a Sierra Leonean who has spent most of his life in England, has come back with his wife Suzy to dig for diamonds. Using borrowed money, they have leased an acre of land deep in the jungle and hired fifty men from surrounding villages to dig a forty-foot-deep pit and sift through the mud and gravel it throws up.

It is easy to see the allure. When we arrive, Johnny shows me yesterday’s haul of eight small stones. The first looks like an undistinguished lump of glass, but the second, flawless, looks like a diamond and, although rough (it will be cut in India or Antwerp), its different facets glitter as I turn it around in the sun. It is worth about £1,000. On the neighbouring plot last year, a Lebanese found a thirty-carat diamond worth £4 million. From one moment to the next, Johnny could get rich.

Or die trying. Another nearby plot was mined for two years by some Americans. They didn’t find a single gem. Prices fell by 80% in the recession, prompting many miners and dealers to switch to gold, which provides a steadier, less risky income. Ali’s business partner almost bankrupted him by giving him a fake cheque for £100,000-worth of diamonds. “We say the profit from diamonds reaches from your toes to your knees, but the losses reach up to your throat,” he says, making a strangling gesture. He is currently pursuing the man through Interpol.

Nearly everything at Johnny’s mine is done by hand. The only sound other than the chink of pickaxes on rock is the drone of the baling machine, which pumps water from the bottom of the pit and spits it out in the washing area, where four muscly young men, bent at the waist, shake mud from large flat sieves and peer intently at the residue, searching among the pebbles and gravel for that elusive glint.

It is sweltering, backbreaking work, but the miners are well remunerated by local standards and are promised significant bonuses if they find something big. Everything is above board: Johnny and Suzy acquired a licence to mine from the government, and every diamond they find is certified, packaged and sealed with a wax stamp under the UN-approved Kimberley Certification Scheme before being shipped to Europe.

The Kimberley Process was initiated in the wake of Sierra Leone’s civil war. It aims to show that a diamond has not come from a conflict zone. Sierra Leone is currently at peace and legal diamond exports have increased since the scheme began. It was not the gems themselves that caused the war, however, but the venality surrounding them, and Kimberley does nothing to tackle corruption.

To acquire a mining licence, you must pay a £70 bribe. If you find a large stone, locals advise you to take it away from your mine immediately, before government helicopters arrive to seize it. Although the diamonds are conflict-free today, therefore, the Kimberley Process will not stop them sparking a new war tomorrow.

On our day at the mine, we don’t bring Johnny and Suzy, who are as superstitious as any gambler, much luck. The washers find four small one-carat stones and a couple of tiny grey specks that can be used industrially. The most valuable is worth about £500. It would take the washers nearly a year to earn that amount, so it is not surprising at the end of the afternoon to hear one of them grumbling that what he has just found in the sieve could be worth trillions of leones (he earns 10,000 a day, about £1.70). The miners may be well paid by Sierra Leonean standards, but they are very cheap labour for their employers. Worried that the washer is planning theft, Johnny relieves him of his duties and sends him to dig in the pit.