Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Dream

From The Sunday Herald :-

In the muddy pits of Koidu, the capital of Sierra Leone's diamond industry. 200,000 miners search for diamonds with a bucket, a spade and a sieve.

Mohamed Sano gave up farming three years ago and came to seek his fortune .
"If I have enough money I will stop," says the 25-year-old as he stands knee- deep in murky water, swilling another pile of gravel around and around in his sieve. It is unlikely. He says: "I see small, small diamonds but never a good one." Yet with a with a gamblers' tenacity, hoping that today he might find the tiny glinting stone that will change his life.

Nearby another former farmer, 29-year-old Aiah Manjah, shovels piles of mud and gravel out of Congo Creek. He has not seen a diamond in a fortnight, but maintains: "Digging is how we get fast money, farming is too slow." - He has been digging for the past 10 years.

Since the end of a savage civil war five years ago, one that was dramatised in the recent film, Blood Diamond. Now there are no drugged-up teenagers pointing AK-47s at the miners while they dig, stealing their diamonds to fuel a crazed rebellion.

Instead , it is the class war .

With peace have come international mining companies eager for a share of Sierra Leone's riches, and their growing control of the mining industry is changing it beyond recognition.

The large mining companies swallow up concessions far larger than the one-acre patches of land that the grassroots miners dig. The biggest company is Koidu Holdings, owned by Israeli diamond magnate Benny Steinmetz. The contrast between this operation and the local miners could not be starker. Its four square-kilometre concession produces 11,000 carats of rough gem-quality diamonds every month, hauled out of a pit which, at 76 metres deep, is the world's largest vertical pit-mining operation.At current prices these are worth an estimated $25 million a year, a large chunk of the $136m that Sierra Leone exported officially in 2006.

Cecilia Mattie, coordinator for the National Advocacy Coalition on Extractives says: "There are a lot of handshakes with the chiefs, who are getting cars and houses while the community gets nothing. We have these mining companies in this country yet there is no electricity and poor water supply, so why are they here?"

Patrick Tongu, field supervisor for the National Movement for Justice and Development adds: "The community are the real losers in this."

By law 3% of diamond exports are taxed by government, and one quarter of this comes back to the mining communities in the form of public projects and infrastructure improvements. In reality, say local activists, the miners see few or no benefits.

The miners earn an average of $1.50 per day plus a small share in any big diamonds they find. The bulk goes to their employers: men who can afford the $300 annual licence fee.

Shaka says: "Diamonds can make you a millionaire overnight." - in this, the world's second-poorest country, every sweating mud-spattered man is hoping it will be him.

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