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Saturday, November 17, 2012 - 1:30am

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

Updated: 2 years ago.
Small-scale artisanal mining has sustained this area since diamonds were discovered in 1930, but it is hard work and the pay is low.

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.

As Sierra Leoneans go to the polls Saturday, the country's diamonds are at the heart of political parties' manifestos. Opposition parties accuse the government of mortgaging lucrative diamond fields for a "pittance," while President Ernest Bai Koroma boasts of his "ambitious" efforts to transform the industry.

In diamond-rich Kono district, in the eastern part of the country, previous elections have been fiercely protested.

While the country's parliamentary election is expected to be relatively peaceful, this hub of diamond mining in the country shows a bitter irony: It's resource rich, but poverty abounds as development here 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/.

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