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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Friday 27 May 2005

LIBERIA: Former rebel fighters dig for diamonds, small-scale mining on the up

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

WEASUA, 27 May 2005 (IRIN) - Boaki spent Liberia's civil war fighting for the rebels. Now it's peacetime, the former gunman spends his days in muddy creek waters, illicitly searching for diamonds, the gems that helped fuel the 14-year conflict.

UN sanctions banning the export of diamonds have been in place since 2001, but exploring for the glittering stones is not illegal so long as you have the requisite permit from the government.

However, practically all the miners interviewed by an IRIN correspondent in a diamond-rich area of Gbarpolu County, some 200 km northwest of the capital Monrovia, said their operations were illicit.

"Every time we see UN helicopters patrolling the sky, we leave the diamond creek," said Boaki, a young man in his 20s who used to fight for the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement.

Now he looks for diamonds near the village of Weasua, a place so famed for the gemstones that Liberia's ramshackle national airline, which boasts a couple of rickety Russian planes, is named after it.

"We know that there are sanctions on diamonds and it always comes to our mind that the UN soldiers in the helicopters are trying to photograph us or attempting to arrest us," Boaki said, pulling on his tattered camouflage T-shirt.

Experts say small-scale diamond mining activity has mushroomed in Liberia in recent months, particularly in the northern areas that border Guinea, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire.

"There was definitely a rise in the number of small-scale mining operations I saw between my visit to Liberia in October 2004 and when I went again in March 2005," Michael Lundberg, the Liberia point man at London-based research group Global Witness, told IRIN on Friday.

UN officials have painted a similar picture. At the end of April, the BBC quoted UN investigator Caspar Fithen as saying that his latest aerial survey had thrown up more mining activity than he had seen on his previous overflight, three months earlier.

The IRIN correspondent who visited Gbarpolu County in mid-May, came across more than 10 diamond pits during a three-hour walk between Weasua and Waritay Camp.

Most of the mines were little more than holes by the side of the river where groups of between 15 and 50 men were using their hands and shovels to sift through gravel for gemstones washed downstream.

Many of the men, aged between 17 and 30, said they had turned to searching for diamonds, because other job opportunities were scarce since they had given up their day jobs as rebel fighters when peace came to Liberia in August 2003.

Trying to make a living

"We are here because we want to survive," said Alieu, a former LURD fighter living in Waritay Camp. "We gave in our guns and we have not heard anything concrete about sending us to school. By being here, we get money from... those that are keeping us on to help them find diamonds."

Finding work for ex-combatants is key to ensuring stability in the war-scarred nation, but Global Witness rebuts any notion of former fighters trading their guns for shovels, saying small-scale diamond mining cannot provide viable long-term employment.

"Alluvial diamond mining and exploration in Liberia has never utilised a large artisan workforce," the group said in its latest report on Liberia's natural resources. "Moreover.. the rainy season that runs from July to October makes the work seasonal and unsustainable as a year-round livelihood for ex-combatants."

During those rainy months, the rivers rise, flooding the crude mine workings.

Back in Weasua, one miner called Gbendah talked about the precarious nature of his job. He explained that he and his colleagues were paid on a results-only basis.

"Those who hired us to carry out the mining only pay us after we've found the diamonds. Then they provide us with food, clothing and cash," he said.

One big question is what happens to the diamonds after they have been discovered. Most industry-watchers assume they are simply smuggled abroad.

Exporting diamonds from Liberia contravenes a ban imposed by the UN Security Council, which is up for review in June.

Some think tanks, like the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, have called for the export ban to be extended until after presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 11 October.

"Many members of the transitional government are known warlords and/or have benefited from the pillage of the country over the past fourteen years," the organisation said in its latest report on Liberia.

However, nearly all of the miners who spoke to IRIN said that the people who really controlled the diamond mines were Guinean and Malian businessmen based in the capital Monrovia.

"They live in Monrovia and every weekend they visit us," said Junior, who is searching for diamonds in the village of Wolo. "They contracted us to be on the mines, but I can not give you their names."

Alarm bells

These shadowy employers ring alarm bells for many people.

"It's a security concern for Liberia and the region if natural resources are being extracted without government control," Lundberg of Global Witness said. "Who's involved? Where is the money going? And what are the profits being spent on?"

Selling diamonds for weapons has been a familiar component of several conflicts in West Africa in recent years.

The decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone which officially ended in January 2002 was mainly fuelled by blood diamonds. Locally-mined gems helped to fund warlords during the 1989-2003 Liberian conflict. And when insurgents crossed the Liberian border into Guinea in 2000, they made straight for the country's diamond mining area before being beaten back by the army.

Nobody really knows how much money diamond mining currently generates for those involved in the trade, but a UN panel of experts estimated this year that illegal production in Liberia was worth about $350,000 per month.

Willie Mulbah, a deputy minister at the Ministry of Land and Mines, said the country exported about 300,000 carats per year before the civil war, mostly gem quality stones from the northwest of the country.

Liberia's transitional government, established by the 2003 peace agreement to run the country until this year's elections, says it is aware of illegal mining in Gbarpolu, Lofa and Nimba counties. But government officials complain that they lack the resources to stop such activities.

"We have received countless reports of illegal diamond mining operations... but it is difficult to curtail those activities considering the logistical constraints we face... to move into those areas and stop the operations," Willie told IRIN in an interview.

The absence of UN peacekeepers in some of the areas where diamond digging takes place is also hampering control efforts, according to Willie and several independent experts.

The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has around 15,000 troops in the West African country, but in the heavily-forested areas around Weasua and Waritay, there were none to be seen.

"They have not been given the legal authority to act as independently and proactively as they need to effectively seek out and stop illegal timber or diamond operations," Global Witness wrote in a letter to the UN Security Council in March.

"UNMIL’s ability to fulfil its mandate is further undermined by its lack of deployment in diamond and timber-rich areas, particularly along Liberia’s porous border regions with Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone," it added.

UNMIL officials could not be reached this week for comment on their plans for troop deployment in diamond-rich areas.

[ENDS]

This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2005



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