DAKAR — Children in Liberia are leaving school in increasing numbers to mine diamonds, and the government is threatening to crack down on the illegal employment of children in digging the gems.
Fifteen-year-old Mike Coleman dropped out of school five months ago to search for diamonds in western Liberia. “Things are difficult on my parents, so I came out here to look for money," said Coleman. "They were sorry when I left the classroom, but I have no options. So I am here looking for a better future. I hope to find a diamond soon.”
Coleman is not alone. Liberia’s Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy estimates that at least 1,500 children are currently employed by Liberian diamond mines.
The principal of Morpue Junior High School in western Liberia, Nora Quae, says more than 200 students dropped out this year to work in the diamond fields.
“Fifty percent of our students have abandoned school," she said. "They have abandoned the class ... This is an embarrassing situation. The future of Liberia depends on the youth. The youth must see reason to go to school and prepare themselves for their future.”
Work in the diamond mines is difficult and dangerous. It is also a lucrative business.
Liberia’s unemployment rate is near 85 percent, and the World Bank estimates 95 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The prospect of earning $50 for each diamond found is too good for many people to turn down.
While it is illegal to employ anyone under the age of 18 in diamond mines, many mine operators are willing to hire children because their bodies can fit into the narrow tunnels and tight spaces of the mines.
Thomas Wleh runs the Liberia Mining Entity in western Liberia. He said a worker is a worker, no matter their age.
“Well, we do not force the young people," Wleh said. "They come to our office and sign a diamond contract to work for us. We are hiring people who are capable of searching for diamonds. I think the government, through the Ministry of Education, must put in place a measure to keep the students in school. We are here to work and make profit.”
The U.N. Security Council helped impose a ban on the mining and export of so-called “blood diamonds” in Liberia in 2001, at the height of the county’s civil war. This helped cut down on the number of children in the mines.
But after the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the United Nations lifted the ban in 2007, and the diamond mines have again begun to flourish, increasing the demand for young workers.
Liberian parliament member Gertrude Lamin says Liberian youths must take it upon themselves to leave the diamond mines and take advantage of the country’s free education system.
“Diamond mining is not the future," said Lamin. "What will they get from mining? You get today to get small money, but tomorrow is not your future. You need, Liberian students, you need to come back and go to school. You must leave mining because tomorrow you will be old, and you will ... have nothing and that will not carry you anywhere.”
The west regional coordinator for Liberia’s Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, Stephen Gbana, said the Liberian government has been made aware of children working illegally in the mines. He said the government has threatened to revoke mining licenses, shut down mines and take legal action against any mining company that is found to be employing school-age children. But no mines have been penalized.