Diamonds from Sierra Leone have fueled the country's gruesome civil war and enriched warlords. Now, the government and activists are trying to make sure the profits from Sierra Leone's post-conflict diamonds help the people who need it most. Naomi Schwarz has this report from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.
Sierra Leone is famous for high quality and very large diamonds, including one of nearly 1,000 carats. More than 65 million carats are known to have been exported from Sierra Leone since international mining began there in the 1930s. Many millions more carats are believed to have been smuggled out of the country.
Yet the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans live in extreme poverty.
In a bid to make sure more Sierra Leoneans benefit from the diamond industry, new president Ernest Bai Koroma is pushing to create laws that will ensure more of the precious stones are polished in country.
Sierra Leonean activist Abu Brima, president of the Network Movement for Justice and Development, says these laws have been a long time coming.
"It is not only a good idea, it is the most expedient thing to do," he said. "But for diamonds, in this country, it has only been just a country producing and exporting. I think it is about time that we start to add value so that people can benefit more from it."
The president has said building polishing factories in Sierra Leone will also create jobs. Unemployment estimates in Sierra Leone top 70 percent.
But Brima says polishing factories are only one small part of the many problems that remain in Sierra Leone's mineral industry.
"All the issues around production, all the issues around environmental damage and destruction, land recovery, compensation to local communities, the protection of local communities against abuse and violations by mining companies, the remuneration that is generated, the conditions of workers in the mining industry, actually formalizing the artisans that mostly mining, these are all issues to address," he said.
Polishing stones in-country is a strategy that has helped some southern African countries benefit more from their mineral riches. But Annie Dunnebacke, of international development watchdog Global Witness says implementing the strategy in Sierra Leone will not be a simple matter.
"Those countries that I mentioned, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, have a very different diamond landscape," said Dunnebacke. "Most of the mining is Kimberlite mining, as opposed to alluvial mining. And so many of the problems faced by governments who have a lot of artisanal alluvial mining are not necessarily faced in those countries."
Alluvial mining can be accomplished with relatively low-tech materials to sift the stones from mud and sand.
Kimberlite mining requires heavy equipment to extract stones embedded in volcanic pipes.
The technique is named for the South African town of Kimberley where the first such volcanic diamond deposit was discovered in the late 1800s. The town also gave the name to the so-called Kimberley Process, a certification plan that aims to track where a diamond was extracted, in an effort to end diamond smuggling.
Alluvial mining has led to a diamond industry that is far more fragmented in Sierra Leone than in southern Africa, and consequently one that is harder to keep track of.
Dunnebacke says diamond smuggling remains a huge problem across West Africa.
"There still is, on a yearly basis, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of diamonds smuggled out of Sierra Leone," she said. "So there is clearly an illicit trade not only in Sierra Leone, but also in the region, which of course includes Ivory Coast where conflict diamonds are still being mined and are still being exported."
And Dunnebacke says the fragmented nature of the diamond industry in Sierra Leone means it will be harder to make in-country polishing economically viable. She says the government will have to find international manufacturers to build the factories and convince individual diamond dealers to sell to Sierra Leonean factories instead of exporting them directly.
President Koroma has also pledged to tackle corruption in the government and mineral industry. His mining minister has said he will review every mining contract to try to cut out cheating and corruption.