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Sierra Leone's Diamonds Fail to Fuel Growth


As Sierra Leone's recently elected president, Ernest Koroma, begins governing, many observers are watching to see how he will tackle corruption. Some say corruption is the reason the country's huge diamond wealth has failed to benefit most Sierra Leoneans, including those who mine the diamonds. Naomi Schwarz recently visited the southern town of Bo, and his this VOA report.

A wide river a few kilometers outside Bo cuts through the landscape. In the dry season, the banks are filled with diamond miners, but the rainy season forces the miners to retreat from the swollen river.

They follow slippery trails through the green brush to man-made pits filled with muddy water.

Young workers walk deeper into the brush to fill old rice sacks with dug up rubble. They carry the sacks on their heads back to the water holes, where they pour the contents into massive piles.

A second group of workers puts the rubble into wide, round sieves. Standing knee deep in the brown water, they rinse the stones, shimmying them back and forth through the water to wash off the mud, and, they hope, to spot any diamonds lurking among the pebbles.

Ibrahim Sesay has been mining for diamonds since he was a child. He says he is very poor, but mining is all he knows. He says feeding his wife and three children is hard, but he prefers to work here than to steal.

Sesay says days and sometimes months pass without finding a single diamond. Some of the young workers say they have been there for more than six months and have never found any.

Sesay says he has found diamonds, but only very little ones.

He says you need special machinery to dig deep enough to find the bigger diamonds and he cannot afford it.

A former aid worker native to the region, Dennis Mackavorey, says, even when miners find diamonds, they are often not paid a fair price.

"The miners get, they feel, what is good," said Mackavorey. "They do not know the valued cost of what they are mining. They do not know the valued cost of a diamond -- just mine it and sell it blindly."

Christian Lawrence, of Sierra Leone's Campaign for Good Governance, says the people get cheated a second time, when the government gives diamond-tax money back to the mining areas.

"Even the kind of tax, which mining companies do give to paramount chiefs in these mining areas, those taxes are principally for undertaking development activities for those particular areas as a form of compensating those communities," said Lawrence. "Most of these monies given to the paramount chiefs and local authorities are actually siphoned."

Lawrence says, as a result of practices like this, the people of Sierra Leone remain incredibly poor, despite their substantial natural resources.

"We really, really have resources locally that, if well-utilized could actually develop the country," said Lawrence. "But that is not happening. We have gold, we have diamond, we have bauxite, you name it, mineral deposit, even to fish, marine resources, we have enough. Even cash crops, cocoa, coffee, cassava, palm oil, you name it, we have it. But, in spite of all of these resources, Sierra Leone is still backward."

Through the decades since Sierra Leone's independence, frustration over this paradox has festered. It was eventually one of the root causes of the civil war that broke out in the early 1990s.

The war ended in 2002, but Lawrence says the pervasive corruption has continued.

In the recent presidential elections, Sierra Leoneans voted for a new government. On election day, then-candidate Ernest Koroma, said he would fight corruption.

"I am democratic, I am honest, and I am going into this ticket on corruption," said Koroma. "I am the only candidate who can stand up and say I am corrupt-free."

He said he would strengthen anti-corruption bodies, and bring cases to a special, independent court.

Lawrence says this would be a welcome change.

"What most Sierra Leoneans would see as a positive step in combating corruption is to actually ensure that the big guys, quote-unquote 'the big fish' are actually being caught," said Lawrence. "People actually want to see politicians being investigated, prosecuted and punished."

He says only small players have been prosecuted.

Lawrence says there are important steps he hopes the new government will take to prevent corruption.

He says mining contracts have been negotiated in secrecy, and organizations like his have to fight to find out the terms.

He says civil advocacy groups need to be able to take part in those negotiations, to make sure the needs of regular people are respected. And, he says, people need to know the terms to make sure the people get what they are supposed to.

Lawrence says Sierra Leone is developing, slowly, but diamond miner Sesay does not agree.

He says since the war, life has only gotten harder.

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