Sierra Leone is a country of two halves. It is a place of incredible beauty, with sights ranging from lush and abundant rainforest to miles of woodland savanna, mountain ranges, mangrove swamp and grassland, and an abundant natural world of plants, animals, and other resources. At the same time, however, it is tied to a complex history of political and civil unrest, war, unemployment, and poverty.
While the Sierra Leone Civil War ended in 2002, the country is still feeling its effects severely. As of 2021, Sierra Leone was the fifth poorest country in the world based on gross national income (GNI) per capita, which stood at just $490 (USD). It is clear that the costs of the war are ongoing, with the country’s existing infrastructure falling far short of what is needed to improve the lives of massive portions of its population.
That’s not to say that improvements have not been seen. In fact, there are plenty of encouraging statistics and data from 21st century Sierra Leone to suggest that change is happened – although much, much more is needed before some of the most vulnerable communities in the world can see (and, most importantly, benefit from) improvement.
One area that promises far more than it is currently able to give to the people of Sierra Leone is the diamond industry – although, for many people around the world, the prevailing image of Sierra Leone’s diamond industry is one of conflict, exploitation, and war.
Still, things are changing – and have been changing for some time now. There is far more to this beautiful country than a past of unrest, and now marks the time for the global diamond industry to recognize the improvement that has occurred, and will continue to happen, with the right investment.
Diamonds were first officially discovered in Sierra Leone in 1930, and quickly fell under the control of the Sierra Leone Selection Trust. These diamonds were predominantly found in alluvial deposits – loose, sedimentary layers of earth containing loose diamonds, that have been carried away from their original source by rivers and other water sources.
By the mid-1950s, however, these alluvial deposits were being mined by many artisan miners (individuals with no formal employment or, often, professional equipment) and independent, small-scale mining companies. The scope of the country’s formal and informal mining operations continued to grow throughout the second half of the twentieth century, to the point where hundreds of thousands of people made their living from this resource.
Unfortunately, the income generated by these diamonds was not distributed effectively or fairly. Miners were largely unaware of their true value, and the income generated through this industry was predominantly felt by those in power, rather than the individuals living in poverty.
Then, by 1991, the country was gripped by a devastating civil war. Parts of the country that boasted high levels of alluvial deposits were quickly seized, since these valuable stones proved to be an easily exploited source of income for funding war efforts. Again, individuals trying to make a living working as artisan miners suffered the most.
For many years, miners were highly vulnerable to exploitation. Men, women, and children had no other option but to work in appalling conditions, in the middle of ongoing violence as a result of the ongoing power struggles – the struggle for control over hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of diamonds produced each year – between rebel groups.
Sierra Leone represented a major source of conflict diamonds – or, as they would later be known, ‘blood diamonds’. An industry that could have represented a major cornerstone of the country’s economy was not just laid to waste, but exploited at the expense of millions of civilians.
While the war ended in 2002, the Sierra Leone felt the impact as keenly as they felt the conflict itself. The country still held remarkable potential in its alluvial diamond deposits, but it was without any sort of formal structure, and still easily exploited – particularly in light of the extreme poverty that prevailed even after the fighting stopped.
With the release of the movie Blood Diamond, and the documentary of the same name, more and more people became aware of the atrocities that occurred in Sierra Leone’s diamond mining areas. Exploitation and smuggling continued as the country struggled to regain a foothold in the aftermath of civil war.
And, still, the potential for a regulated diamond industry was high. Further south, in countries like Namibia and Botswana, economies were flourishing as a result of the government’s involvement in mining efforts.
The story does, however, begin to improve – if only gradually. While slow and largely overlooked by the mainstream media, Sierra Leone’s attempts to gain a foothold in diamond production were (and are) proving successful. Between the end of the war and 2006, licenses for diamond mining in Sierra Leone had increased from the tens to the thousands; a sure sign that the country’s regulated and controlled diamond industry was growing.
Still, Sierra Leone is a poor nation with alluvial deposits scattered across miles and miles of land – much of which is lacking any sort of infrastructure. As a result, it is difficult to control or oversea, and smuggling remains an issue. That, combined with the fact that the country became known for its conflict – and the blood diamonds that arose for it – meant that change was largely disregarded. While awareness was needed, it also led to a bad reputation – an intrinsic tie to the term ‘blood diamond’, and a lack of interest from investors and consumers around the world.
While diamonds have represented a curse for Sierra Leone, that does nothing to change the fact that they could – and, in some cases, already do – represent the exact opposite. While the history is different, the future could be the same for Sierra Leone as it is for any of Africa’s more successful diamond producing nations, with the right investment and approach from those who hold the key.
In 2001, two years before joining the Kimberley Process, the government of Sierra Leone created DACDF, which ensured that mining communities could start to see genuine benefit from the taxes generated when their diamonds were exported from the country. Between then and now, the level of legitimately mined diamonds has continued to increase. By 2006, more than $100 million was being generated through diamond exports per annum.
In 2018, the mining group De Beers established an ethical sourcing pilot scheme in Sierra Leone, designed to put traceability in the hands of the artisanal and small-scale miners themselves. As of 2021, that number had climbed to 160. This technology, while relatively new now, promises to be combined with blockchain in the future for an infallible record that leads vendors back to the miners who first brought their diamonds to the surface.
As a result of this change, it is entirely possible for vendors to begin sourcing responsibly and ethically mined diamonds from Sierra Leone – and to support a future of economic and personal growth within the country.
From countries further down the road in terms of establishing strong and resilient diamond industries, there are countless examples of the good diamonds can bring. Education, roads, hospitals – even the most basic necessities like running, clean water and electricity – can become more of a possibility with a stable economy.
It is vital to remember that diamonds represent a major export for Sierra Leone, and that finding the tools and investment needed to realize the full potential of this sector promises a lot for the country.
Sierra Leone represents a country still trying to shed the weight of a long and difficult past. Far beyond its diamond sector, it is still reeling from years of devastating conflict and corruption and, as you might expect, the greatest struggle is felt by the individual.
It’s true that, decades ago, the market was flooded with conflict diamonds – many of which came from Sierra Leone, and the artisan miners who were exploited and forced to work under rebel groups looking to fund conflict. It’s also true that, for a lot of people who recall Sierra Leone’s days of civil war, reimagining the country’s diamond industry as one defined by growth, development, opportunity, and sustainable economic growth will take some time.
That’s not to say, however, that it cannot happen – or that it isn’t already happening in parts of the country. As of 2021, the high potential of Sierra Leone’s alluvial diamonds – potential that has been widely discussed across the global industry – is beginning to pay off for artisan and small-scale mining operations. A key point raised in the All That Glitters seminar, held in 2020 by the Initiatives in Arts and Culture, was that overlooking the issues faced by artisan and small-scale miners was simply not an option.
One of the greatest setbacks Sierra Leone’s diamond industry faces is stigma – memories of a time when corruption outperformed licit mining activities. But picturing the country as one that is trapped under its own weight doesn’t help it to repair, improve, and create entirely new opportunities for economic growth.
True, there is a way to go, but there is a right and good way of getting there with the right support and investment from the global diamond industry.