RAPAPORT… Martin Rapaport recently discussed Sierra Leone’s past, present and future with Usman Boie Kamara, deputy director of mines for Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Mineral Resources.
What is the situation in Sierra Leone today?
Usman Boie Kamara: The situation in Sierra Leone today is peaceful and stable. There is no conflict and this has been the case since the official end of the conflict in January 2002.
There are, however, many developmental issues, coupled with high expectations from the people of Sierra Leone. There is political will to effect change and efforts are being made by government and citizens to better living standards.
Sierra Leone Diamond Exports
Note: Upon implementation of the Kimberley Process in 2003/2004.
The encouraging thing is that Sierra Leoneans have realized that conflict does not solve any problems and that it makes everyone poorer. So there is now a determination to avoid conflict and to resolve issues peacefully, because it is only in a peaceful atmosphere that the development everyone yearns for will take place.
Sierra Leone has excellent relations with its immediate neighbors, Guinea and Liberia, who together with Sierra Leone form the Mano River Union (MRU). The danger of war from neighbors is therefore remote. Steps are being made to reactivate the Mano River Union to encourage closer cooperations between the three countries.
MR: How important are diamonds to Sierra Leone?
UBK: The mining of diamonds contributes to the economic well-being of the country in terms of revenue and jobs for unskilled workers. The rise in the official export of diamonds has not only increased tax revenue and royalties, but has contributed immensely to the stability of our currency, the leone.
MR: How many people in Sierra Leone rely on income from diamonds for their livelihood?
UBK: The total number of people living off the diamond trade can be estimated at 500,000, i.e., a ratio of 5 to 1 of those working directly in the field. The population of Sierra Leone is five million.
The number of diggers working in Sierra Leone can be estimated at about 100,000. In addition, there are many support services that benefit directly from trading and mining activities. The number of exporters from Sierra Leone has ranged from five to ten over the past five years, with exporters’ agents averaging about 3 to each exporter. The number of supporters/dealers has generally ranged between 100 and 120.
MR: Are diamonds playing a positive or negative role in Sierra Leone’s development? What are the benefits and disadvantages of diamonds?
UBK: Global diamonds have been playing a positive role in Sierra Leone’s development, but there are important hurdles that must be overcome to ensure that the benefits of the trade reach the base level of the chain — the diggers.
The major negative impact of the diamond industry is the damage to the environment. This question is being addressed in a robust way by putting in place policies for the reclamation of mined-out areas. A rehabilitation fund was created in 2001 with a percentage of the license fees paid into this fund. This money is being used to rehabilitate mined-out areas and make them useful for agriculture. Recently, a government initiative, YES (Youth Employment Scheme), was launched, employing youths to do the rehabilitation work.
MR: How reliant is Sierra Leone on diamonds today?
UBK: The reliance of Sierra Leone on diamonds has declined over the years as rutile and bauxite exports have grown in importance.
MR: How can we protect the integrity of Sierra Leone diamonds so as to make sure they are not mixed with conflict diamonds?
UBK: Historically, there has not been much of a trade link between Sierra Leone and Cote d’lvoire and, as such, the possibility of conflict diamonds coming to Sierra Leone is remote.
In any case, to protect the integrity of Sierra Leone diamonds, we have put in place mechanisms such as mining, dealer and exporters’ licenses. Other measures, including strict implementation of the Kimberley Process (KP), ensure that only diamonds mined in Sierra Leone are exported through the official channel.
The perception of consumers is important, but so is the fact that the possibility of diamonds from Cote d’Ivoire finding their way to Sierra Leone is very remote. One can confidently say, therefore, that no diamond from Cote d’Ivoire is going through our official certification process.
At the Government Gold and Diamond Office (GGDO), where the export of diamonds takes place, there is an Independent Valuator in addition to the Government Valuer. These experts have vast experience in Sierra Leone’s diamonds and are under instructions to confiscate any diamond of suspected origin. To date, there has been no suspect parcel of diamonds.
MR: In your opinion, what amount and percentage of Sierra Leone diamonds are smuggled out of Sierra Leone?
UBK: As can be seen from the figures there has been a monumental increase in the carats and value of diamonds exported through official channels. This has been due to a combination of factors, including the Diamond Area Community Development Fund (DACDF), which has been put in place to return a percentage of diamond exports to local communities. This fund not only provides direct assistance to the communities, it also encourages people to use the official channels and stamp out illicit mining, which is the root cause of smuggling.
The value of diamonds has peaked at about $140 million, and because of the difficulty in the production of deeper deposits. there may be a drop in this figure, as easily accessible alluvial diamond areas are depleted.
The percentage of diamonds smuggled out of Sierra Leone in my opinion is less than 10 percent because of the measures that have been put in place and the efficacy of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS).
It is difficult to ascertain whether diamonds are coming from neighboring countries because of the similarity in the characteristics of some of the diamonds from Guinea and Liberia. One can say, however, that there is not much to be gained by bringing in diamonds from these countries, as there is a certification process in place in Guinea and production from Liberia is virtually nonexistent.
MR: What is the average salary in Sierra Leone, including that of a digger, policeman and monitor? Are there alternative job opportunities for diggers?
UBK: Wages are generally low in Sierra Leone. An average monthly wage is about $50. A digger on contract usually gets $2 per day and in addition is given one meal a day, equivalent to about $1. A mines monitor earns on the average $65.
A lot of people usually have some other means of sustenance such as farming and trading, i.e., buying and selling commodities that they receive from relatives and friends from overseas.
MR: Is it possible to guard all of Sierra Leone’s borders? How many monitors are there?
UBK: It is not possible to guard all the borders at present, but a robust effort has been made to curb smuggling of diamonds and other commodities. Measures have been put in place by the National Revenue Authority (NRA).
MR: Is monitoring a feasible reality?
UBK: Monitoring coupled with incentives is feasible and is responsible for the tremendous positive advance of the diamond industry in Sierra Leone.
MR: What would happen to Sierra Leone if it could no longer export diamonds?
UBK: If Sierra Leone could no longer export diamonds, it would have a negative influence on the economy in terms of the employment of unskilled labor and a drop in the economic activities in the service industries that
supply the diamond industry with logistics, such as mining equipment, fuel and rice — the staple food of the country.
MR: What future do you see for Sierra Leone and for the diamond industry in SL?
UBK: To eliminate conflict diamonds, there is a need to eliminate conflict, which goes beyond the diamond industry. We must address political situations and ensure that problems are solved in a peaceful manner. The ills of the society cannot all be laid at the feet of the diamond industry.
MR: How do you respond to NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that say the KP is not working and that people should not buy diamonds from Sierra Leone because they may be smuggled in as conflict diamonds?
UBK: The KP has had a tremendous positive impact in not only reducing conflict diamonds, but also smuggled diamonds. This is because exporting and importing countries do not allow the movement of diamonds that do not have a KP certificate.
MR: Are diamonds good or bad for Sierra Leone — in the past, present and future?
UBK: Natural resources usually form the engine of growth in developing economies. It is unfortunate that people use them for activities that are detrimental to the well-being of the people. The challenge we face is to ensure the beneficial use of resources such as diamonds to ensure the future sustainability of the economies of our country. In that vein, I would imagine that diamonds are a “potential blessing” that needs to be converted to reality by their proper exploitation.
MR: Should people buy diamonds from Sierra Leone today? How can they be sure they are not conflict diamonds?
UBK: People should definitely buy diamonds from Sierra Leone, as they are conflict free and help the economy and people of Sierra Leone. They are not conflict diamonds as there is no conflict in Sierra Leone.
MR: Do you think the problem of conflict diamonds can ever be completely eradicated?
UBK: Conflict diamonds would be completely eradicated when conflicts for natural resources are eliminated. This is tied up with the political situation in the world today.
MR: What is the most problematic area of Sierra Leone life today?
UBK: The most problematic area of life in Sierra Leone is the creation of jobs and sustenance for its people. This is linked up with the provision of infrastructure and amenities to raise the living standards of its people.
MR: What advice do you have for someone who wants to help or invest in Sierra Leone?
UBK: The best way to help Sierra Leone is to invest in the economy. By this investment, jobs can be created, which would have the multiplier effect on the service industries.
The investment should be not only in the mineral sector, but more so in the manufacturing sector and others, such as tourism.
MR: What do you think of the “Blood Diamond” movie? Is it good or bad for Sierra Leone?
UBK: The makers of the “Blood Diamond” movie are really not interested in the well-being of Sierra Leone and this is borne out by the fact that even the shooting of the film did not take place in Sierra Leone, nor was Sierra Leone involved in any way to put the country in a better light. If the makers of the movie have a message against the movers and shakers of the diamond industry, then the message should have been portrayed without putting Sierra Leone in a negative light.
There is much to be gleaned from this film and it brings home the elements of colonialism and imperialism, where people in strong countries, for their own selfish motives, portray images and stories that do not show the true reality of life in weaker countries.
The movie, however, is to be looked at in the context of the historical fact that Western media has, by and large, portrayed Africa in a negative light and this is one more example of the continuing saga.
I can say with all the sincerity and humility of someone who has worked in Sierra Leone for over 30 years that it is not all doom and gloom. The people of Sierra Leone have great hope for the future.