Thursday, September 24, 2009

Gems of knowledge help miners avoid swindlers

So many facets … Babar Turay with fake diamonds used as a teaching aid.
AdvertisementIN A DARKENED room in the village of Bandafayie, two dozen men sit discussing the four Cs of diamonds: cut, colour, clarity and carats. They pass around shiny fake specimens that look like novelty ice cubes and test the terminology - "impurities" and "speculative" - that denotes a gemstone's worth.
These are not nervous grooms about to invest in a rock to impress their brides. They are miners who pull the world's most valuable stones from Sierra Leone's reddish earth and generally live in poverty as they ply their trade.
Most miners know nothing about diamonds, except to watch for their milky shine while shifting and shaking their mud-spattered mining sieves. "If you ask [most miners] how they determine the price, they'll tell you, 'Well, we look at it and we think whether any like it have been sold in the past couple weeks and we go for that price," said Babar Turay, program manager at the Integrated Diamond Management Program. "They don't have the faintest idea what the price is."
Ignorance and exploitation go hand in hand in these diamond fields. For miners like the ones in Bandafayie, Mr Turay's program is a kind of "diamond university", where they learn to fend for themselves against dealers and buyers who would otherwise cheat them.
The plight of the West African diamond miner was recently highlighted with the release of the film Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It depicted enslaved diggers frantically searching for stones to help fund their captors' war.
Although the industry has begun an offensive to convince prospective diamond buyers that the gems no longer fuel bloody conflicts, it is here on the ground where change is most needed.
More than 1 billion carats of diamonds have been dug up from the dirt around Kono, the centre of Sierra Leone's diamond region, since the 1930s, experts say.
But there is no sign of wealth in the rough-and-tumble town. Today miners can dig only on licensed lands, forcing many Sierra Leoneans into partnership with the wealthy Lebanese diamond dealers who can afford the $US40,000 ($50,700) licensing fee.
The agreements are often signed with an "X" and closed with a handshake. Many miners are illiterate and would not understand a contract anyway.
The imbalanced financial arrangement means most miners feel compelled to sell their stones to their supporters, Mr Turay says.
"The supporters have better knowledge and business management and with these weapons - the finances and the know-how - they always exploit the ordinary diggers and miners."
He tells an astonishing story to illustrate the need for education among the miners.
A woman who was out planting potatoes lifted her bucket to return home and noticed a stone, which she pocketed and later presented to her pastor, wondering if it could be a diamond.
He gave her 100,000 leones ($43) for it, then sold the marble-sized stone to a diamond dealer for $US100,000.
The dealer took the stone to be weighed, measured and classified by the Government Gold and Diamond Department in the capital, Freetown, which determined the 156-carat stone was worth just shy of $US1 million.
When it was finally sold at auction to a Saudi gem merchant it went for $US1.2 million.
"If you go to anyone you have to have the information, otherwise you'll be cheated," Mr Turay says.
Ibrahim Jalloh, who has worked in the mines for four years, says he has become something of a consultant since finishing his course. In his isolated village other miners will call him on his mobile phone to ask him to bring over his scales and size up a recent find.
Karen Palmer in Kono, Sierra Leone
January 20, 2007

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