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Harvard Study Criticizes Child Labor in Diamond Mines

Harvard University's human rights program says children are being exploited as a source of cheap labor for diamond mines in Sierra Leone.

Concern about Sierra Leone's so-called "blood diamonds" used by rebels to finance years of civil war led to industry reforms known as the Kimberly Process certifying the origin of diamonds as "conflict free."

But the end of fighting in Sierra Leone has not improved the lives of children working in the mines.

"Even in the aftermath of the Kimberly Process, diamonds still are funded by exploitative labor," said Matthew Wells, a student in the human rights program at Harvard University's law school.

"It's destroying an entire generation. It's alienating a generation. It's back-breaking labor with severe health consequences. The mining pits are grounds for malaria because they are mining in the shallow waters," he said. "The pits, as they are digging deeper and deeper, are collapsing and people are being seriously injured and killed. And so it is a very dangerous industry, especially for small children who are forced to do very difficult labor."

Wells helped write the university human rights program's new report on child mining in Sierra Leone entitled, "Digging in the Dirt."

He says many children came to the mines after their parents were killed during the civil war. Others are working to help provide for their families. Child mining is not only illegal, Wells says, it is also not a sustainable source of income.

"They are paid a pittance. They are paid $1, $2 max a day for their labor. So it is not something that is actually benefitting them in terms of being able to provide for their household," Wells said. "So instead, they need to be provided the education that the government of Sierra Leone is obligated to provide them under domestic law because that will give them real opportunities to get out of the mines and provide sustainable money for their family."

The Harvard report has two broad recommendations.

It wants the government in Freetown to spend more on education. While primary school fees are covered by the government, Wells says there are other costs including uniform fees, exam fees, and payments to teachers that still make primary education prohibitive for many families.

"The government needs to redirect more resources to education because the children and the youth of this country are the future of this country," he said. "If Sierra Leone is going to move in the direction that I think we all want it to, then the government needs to take these children's rights far more seriously."

The report also calls on President Ernest Bai Koroma's government to improve mining regulations so more of the profits that come out of diamond-mining villages return to benefit those doing the work.

While researching the report, Wells says he heard many people complain about government officials illegally obtaining mining licenses either for themselves or for business associates. He says Sierra Leone's anti-corruption commission should be more active in investigating illicit involvement in the country's diamond trade.