Sierra Leone's civil war was paid for by the mining of "blood diamonds" -- which also destroyed the land. Only now are food crops beginning to recover
March in Sierra Leone is the end of the dry season and the hottest month of the year. Across one end of an expanse of newly turned soil, a line of heavily muscled men sweat profusely as they shovel into the tall mound of earth ahead of them. We're on a piece of land outside Koidu, the capital of Kono district - heartland of the country's notorious diamond industry. The heap of red dirt, quickly disappearing under the onslaught of shovels, is a legacy of the informal and largely unregulated diamond mining that has converted this fertile stretch of flat valley bottom into a wasteland of deep water-filled pits and slag piles half hidden by parched tufts of elephant grass.
Throughout Kono, where rural poverty rates hover around 80%, the crumbling ruins of burned -out houses and the pits and piles of artisanal mines attest to the devastation the diamond trade has wreaked on this region. Although the conflict for control of the diamond fields officially ended in January 2002, post-conflict rehabilitation -- of both infrastructure and public spirit -- has a long way to go. Again in 2008, Sierra Leone remained at the very bottom of the UN Human Development Index. Koidu, still waiting for public water and power, decent medical care, and a paved highway, sits in the centre of one of the poorest regions in the country.
But there is an atmosphere of camaraderie and good humor at this worksite on the outskirts of town. The men laugh together as they dig and pose grinning with their shovels when I pull out my camera. The 35 laborers have been hired for two weeks by One Sky, a Canadian grassroots organization that, one shovelful at a time, is working to restore mined-out land and provide short term employment opportunities in the process. The men, most of whom ordinarily work as subsistence diamond miners, are earning four times their regular daily wage of 2000 Leones -- the equivalent of about 60 cents -- as they level nearly seven acres of rough land. In the months ahead, the Kainsay Farmers' Cooperative, a group comprising mainly women, will nurture rice seedlings in their village nursery and transplant them to this land. The harvest will mark one small step towards food security for a region trapped in the long struggle to rebuild itself.
Amazingly warm and friendly people are Sierra Leone's most striking feature. Spend a little time in conversation, though, and the lingering effects of war and lasting scourge of poverty quickly come to light. By most standards, Sierra Leone is in a highly vulnerable situation. A decade of brutal conflict claimed over 75,000 lives, displaced half of the country's 4.5 million residents, and created 500,000 refugees. Experts repeatedly point to crushing poverty as a critical threat to human security. Recent events in West Africa, though, suggest that the inequities and environmental damage embedded in Kono's land use practices, combined with such poverty, could prove even more destabilizing.
As food prices doubled in the first four months of 2008 -- with the price of rice rising by as much as 33% in one day -- riots broke out in sixty countries. In March, unrest in Cameroon led to 24 deaths and 1600 arrests. By April, protests had erupted in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania and Senegal. In May, troops opened fire on tens of thousands of protesting Somalis. Sierra Leoneans remained relatively peaceful as they watched food prices swell by over 300 per cent.
Last year's food crisis sparked food security worries in the North, but for poor countries of the global South the hardship was profound. Poor, import-dependent countries vying for commodities in a surging global marketplace fared worst. In Sierra Leone, as in much of West Africa, rice accounts for nearly half the average daily caloric intake. Yet despite its importance to the national diet and, by implication, national security, the country's farmers have not yet been able to recover the production capacity lost during the conflict. In 1982, Sierra Leone imported 70,800 tonnes of rice. By 2003, after 6 years in which population growth was nearly 70% higher than growth in food production, the country was importing over 145, 000 tonnes.
The causes of this food shortfall are complex: In 2003, there were only 0.1 tractors per 1000 hectares of arable land; tillage was and is still done almost entirely with three-foot-long hoes. Only about 5% of the country's arable land is irrigated. Much agriculture is shifting cultivation, demanding a massive annual labor input just to clear hillsides of forest and brush. A significant portion of the country's population is still displaced. In the face of these challenges there are no easy answers, but there must at least be some low hanging fruit? What policies, reforms or investments would quickly increase food production capacity in the areas where it is most needed?
According to the Freetown-based National Advocacy Coalition on Extractives, Sierra Leone's established diamond fields cover nearly 20,000 km2 -- almost a quarter of the country's land base. They are situated mainly where diamonds are found in the highest concentrations: in the alluvial gravel deposits of creek beds, river channels, and underlying the fertile soils of flood plains and swamps. Mining is done mainly at a small scale or artisanally, using the most rudimentary tools to dig through the topsoil to the underlying gravel. Soil horizons are inverted and topsoil washed away in a process that leaves the pitted landscape virtually inaccessible for peasant farmers.
In a country where piped irrigation is largely non-existent and water pumps are rarely seen, the fertile areas bordering waterways are valued as the highest yielding arable land. The presence of diamonds in these drainage areas pits mineral extraction against agriculture in a struggle for the same coveted pieces of land.
Where agriculture has gained the upper hand to become firmly established in such areas, the results are noteworthy: lush verdant gardens of corn, okra and sweet potato flourish through the dry season, followed by a rice crop in the rainy season. Sierra Leonean farmers work hard and smart; even a small plot of land will satisfy most of their family's food needs and provide a modest surplus.
But where mining literally erodes Kono's agricultural capacity, economic benefits for its hungry populace remain miserably low. Throughout Sierra Leone, informal or artisanal miners who work at a subsistence level form the bulk of the diamond mining labor force. These unskilled, uneducated laborers are easily exploited, as they often have little understanding of the value of the gems they mine.
Meanwhile, the low diamond export taxes collected by the Government of Sierra Leone do little to aid the country's development. In 2000, during the last years of the war, revenues from diamond exports totalled US$10 million. By 2007 they had reached over US$141 million. Despite this steady increase in export revenue, government returns from diamonds have remained at a paltry US$3.5 million since 2004. In 2007, this amounted to only 2.5% of the total value of diamond exports.
Such low returns are another legacy of the conflict; many of the long-standing agreements between government and private sector enterprises were negotiated when the much weakened government was just emerging from war. Now, independent agencies are calling for swift action by the current government to tackle these regulatory issues and increase mining returns. They recommend government returns of at least 7%, preferably 10%, of total mineral export revenues -- a reform that would go far in helping improve the country's development prospects. Others are calling for increased enforcement of land reclamation regulations to ensure that rather than becoming malarial wastelands, mined-out lands are quickly returned to productive use.
With luck, similar regulatory reforms would hold the local officials responsible for land use and tenure decisions more accountable to citizens. Women in particular, who remain largely excluded from both the mining sector and from land ownership or control, would stand to benefit from a more transparent system with increased civil society involvement in land use decisions.
Back at the reclamation site, the men returning home at the end of a hard day's work are proving that abandoned diamond fields can be restored effectively and inexpensively. The process provides local employment and ends with increased regional food security and sustainable livelihood options. But this small reclamation site is only the beginning of a monumental task. Ultimately, policy changes are required, ranging from increased transparency to land use consultations to mandated and enforced reclamation by all mining entities. Only then will Sierra Leone see real, long term benefits from its diamond fields. In the wake of last year's food crisis, the urgency of the task is clear.
Emily McGiffin is an activist and writer living in Hazelton, B.C.