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Sierra Leone Conference Tries to Turn 'Blood Diamonds' Into 'Development Diamonds' - 2004-05-28

In Sierra Leone, the government, donors, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations are trying to turn so-called "blood diamonds" into "development diamonds." The precious gems fueled Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war, which ended in 2002, and reform in the diamond-mining sector is seen as essential to the country's reconstruction.

Blood Diamonds is the name of a new Nigerian movie, released throughout West Africa. It tells the story of Sierra Leone's war, of rebels and mercenaries, who trade diamonds for weapons.

The rebels say this diamond wealth, which is found throughout riverbeds and in several kimberlite reserves, should not be hijacked by what they describe as corrupt government officials.

But like the officials before them, the rebels trade with Lebanese, Russian and Israeli businessmen, who smuggle the diamonds out of Africa, leaving little benefit for populations from mining areas.

Such diamond-fueled conflicts have also plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, leading the international community to implement the so-called Kimberly process that was initiated in 2000. This process mandates the certification of all rough diamonds by their country of origin, before they are exported.

Official exports from Sierra Leone, which were at just 50,000 carats in 1988, and virtually non-existent during the war, shot up to nearly half a million carats last year.

The general manager of Sierra Leone's gold and diamond office, Lawrence Ndola-Myers, says the jump in the value of diamond exports, which he expresses in dollars, is proof that the process is working.

"The year 2000, exports were $10 million, 2001, $26 million, 2002, $41 million, 2003, $76 million, and as I talk to you, $44 million," he said. "So you'll find out that the smuggling is being reduced."

Mr. Ndola-Myers says the government collects a three percent export tax on diamonds, as do most governments. But in Sierra Leone, 0.75 percent now goes to a development fund for mining communities.

"For the first time in the history of the nation, 0.75 percent of all exports go back to the areas that are mined, and these areas enjoy that 0.75 percent for development," said Mr. Ndola-Myers. "They might have schools, or it could be for other arrangements."

But non-governmental organizations, such as London-based Global Witness remain unconvinced. Their diamond expert, Alex Yearsley, says that, beyond the Kimberley process, there is hardly any government regulation.

Mr. Yearsley also says there is now evidence of illicit partnerships between government officials and foreign dealers, who work as individuals rather than companies, and rampant money-laundering, bribery and smuggling by exporters.

"The Sierra Leone government could give a damn about the morals of the diamond industry, because it's the short-termist view of most African governments, [meaning] basically, 'what can I get now.' They can't generally see beyond the next year, because they're so busy lining their own pockets," said Alex Yearsley. "It's a bit sad that the government blatantly have failed to learn any lessons of the past."

A U.S.-government-funded project, aimed at keeping more profits at the point of extraction, is being run with Sierra Leone's Ministry of Mineral Resources.

Its purpose is to bring together community leaders, human rights activists and the government to establish fair labor practices for diggers, more monitoring of mining areas, and decentralization of the industry through local pricing and valuation.

A Sierra Leonean human rights activist, Abu Brima, would like to see efforts to redistribute wealth go further, such as establishing new nationality laws to restrict the dominance of foreigners who, he says, have no interest in keeping their profits inside the country.

"For a precious mineral like this, on which the country depends a lot, there has to be a very strict regulation that is enforced about who really can be found in those areas where the minerals are mined, who should have access," he said. "And when you are found with diamonds, and you have no business having diamonds, what should happen to you. I mean, we have to be clear about that. If we let everything loose, certainly, we're joking, nothing will happen."

The government says it has instituted an open-door policy for foreigners and foreign companies, because few Sierra Leoneans have the money needed to obtain licenses in the diamond sector, or to develop sites, which requires heavy machinery.

With the help of the United Nations, the Sierra Leonean government also has established a new diamond investigative force of 12 police officers to probe into generalized corruption in the industry, smuggling, money-laundering, fraud and under-valuation of gems, which is equated with theft and illegal mining sites.

Diamond security consultant Jeff Corkill is trying to obtain funding for the project, because, he says, without computers, vehicles and offices, there isn't much the unit can do. But he says that despite limited resources, the unit has already had an impact.

"Resources, obviously, is the major issue to getting a unit up and functioning fully effectively," said Jeff Corkill. "But without the resources available to them, they've still managed to have a couple of arrests, and actually intercepted diamonds being smuggled out of the country. And, they have brought about successful charges and successful prosecution as well."

Sierra Leone's top exporter, Lebanese Hisham Mackie, who last year accounted for 40 percent of legal exports, works in a high-security office in central Freetown. His family has been in the diamond business here since the diamond rush of the 1950s, and continued working throughout the war.

He says his work has become more lucrative now that the industry is becoming regulated and transparent.

However, he refused to speak to VOA on tape. He also rejected accusations by non-governmental organizations that diamond exporters in West Africa may be helping to finance such terrorist organizations as Hezbollah and al-Qaida.