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Living Room Session. Sierra Leone: Artisanal Diamond Mining as a Means for Change

artisanal mining diamonds living room sessions sierra leone Apr 06, 2024

This Living Room session was dedicated to methods of working towards systemic change and a more sustainable future for diamond mining and impacted communities in Sierra Leone. Our guests for this session, Fas Lebbie, founder of Root Diamonds and Root Studios; and Jared Amadeo Holstein, San Francisco-based jewelry wholesaler, shared their approaches to increase local benefit from the industry for artisanal diamond miners.

You can read the takeaways from this Living Room below or watch the recording to hear the full conversation.

The history and context of artisanal diamond mining in Sierra Leone.

The sobering history of the illegal trade of diamonds that developed after their discovery in the late 1930s was the beginning of a more recent role that diamonds played in political power dealings and in fueling the brutal Civil War of the 1990s. Healing from a colonialist history is a challenge, especially when the impacts are still so persistent. But at this moment in time we are focusing on a vision for the future – how diamonds might still have the potential to be a part of the healing story.

There is a lot of past harm to make up for in Sierra Leone and at the same time to move beyond doing no harm. It’s crucial to work toward creating a system that is truly beneficial to everyone in mining communities. Unfortunately, this isn't happening yet. In a 2019 report by anti-corruption nonprofit Transparency International, it was concluded that “hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the extraction of diamonds continue to leave… the country without benefiting anyone in the community”.

At Christina T. Miller Consulting (CMC), we are committed to supporting the transformation of the ways that communities benefit from their mineral resources.

How Root Studios and Root Diamonds tell the stories of artisanal diamond miners.

The social enterprise initiative called Root Studios is an open, collaborative makerspace that prepares youth, women, and people with disabilities in mining communities with job-ready programs. The programs taught at the studio include diamond cutting, jewelry design, mineral design, product and UX/UI design, and impact entrepreneurship. Its sister company, Root Diamonds, is market-facing and adds value to diamonds by attaching them to miners’ stories. All of the revenue from the diamond company goes to support the Root Studios.

Root Diamonds is based on the idea of “material light, experience heavy”, where material refers to minerals. The initiative is working with the small-scale miners to tell their stories, illustrate the journey of one diamond from the extraction site to a retailer, and build the narrative arc. Unfortunately, in many cases the industry edits out and blocks access to some of those stories. However, as Root Diamonds discovered, many consumers look for traceability and transparent diamonds that can connect them to the miners.

How can diamonds be used as a value addition and increase the benefits for the community in a well-rounded way?

Root Diamonds is looking for ways to build sustainable conditions at a local scale, to protect and empower communities, especially miners, keeping in mind the context of the multipli-level problem. Fas Lebbie explained:

“One of the things that's important to understand is that the industry, or in some ways ASM space has, just like a diamond... many facets. And they're mutating and changing, and with that context, people need… to understand that [the] first part of what we are trying to do sustainably is to understand the problem -what is it? What does the problem look like at a micro level?

The diamond on the ground, what is that? How do we understand the conditions of the challenges and the opportunities for that? Then we move [to]another level of scale, the miner, which is the individual scale. And then we begin to think about... how does that affect the community environment as a level of scale? What are the opportunities and what are the problems? And then we move mostly to the community and [regions] and eventually planet. And the planet level is where we start talking to the consumers in a more Western context.”

Root Diamonds aims to understand these levels of scale and build a niche way of working that can counter power structures and transition miners to alternative livelihoods. The truth is that most miners Fas has spoken with throughout his work so far had never dreamed of doing this backbreaking labor in the sun but were forced to do it due to the economic, political, and socio-political conditions in the country. Moreover, there’s empirical evidence of resource exhaustibility in many parts of Africa, including Sierra Leone. That’s why this issue needs to be addressed not just at the industry level, but also at the governance level.

Jared Amadeo Holstein shares about selling artisanally mined diamonds from Sierra Leone.

Most of the antique or post-consumer diamonds have a limited environmental footprint, but also create no benefit to anyone, at least not to producing communities. Around 1.5 million people are involved with mining artisanal diamonds all over the world, mostly in African countries, but also in Indonesia, Brazil and elsewhere. Artisanal diamonds, which make up around 20% of all annual diamond production, most of the time enter the gyre and then become difficult to trace.

After waiting for almost two decades, Jared finally had his first opportunity to purchase traced artisanal diamonds through GemFair, a De Beers initiative which was launched in 2017. The GemFair program provides a more direct route to bring these goods to market and help people mine more safely, effectively, and with less negative impacts. Jared emphasized that upskilling miners is not just about extracting resources more efficiently, but it's also about thinking of the long term impacts of mining:

“Certainly, one of the takeaways that I was most humbled by from one of the surveys done with the Kimberley Process Civil Society Coalition by Christina T. Miller Consulting (2021) was that one of the largest concerns of communities impacted by diamond mining were environmental concerns, like an impact on quality of life.

So that's dust… impacts and pollution of the watershed, and their ability to live and prosper and live their lives as they see fit, which might mean being subsistence farmers, if that's what they want to do, they have the right to do that without being impacted, right? So things like helping people mine efficiently and in a way that doesn't impact their surrounding community, that doesn't create pits where water can stand and malaria carrying mosquitoes can breed, etc.”

Does the ASM diamond production need to be scaled?

The logic of capitalism implies that scaling up is necessary in order to progress, although this can come in friction with the well-being of locality. Sometimes descaling and creating local independent small structures can be more beneficial for the producing communities. Scale should only be implemented when it can be helpful - help people mine in a more environmentally responsible way that doesn't impact the surrounding land, or help s them to more easily reclaim their own farmland. Sadly, so far many industries have been scaling at a pace that the Earth cannot sustain.

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