Approximately 16% of the world’s diamonds are produced by artisanal miners. An artisanal miner is a person—usually a man but often a child—who digs diamonds by hand. There are 1.5 million of them in Africa and South America, working in 18 different countries. The work is hard and dirty and dangerous. Some artisanal mining is done in fast-running rivers that are even more hazardous. And because gravel must be washed in order to find the gems, much of a digger’s day is spent standing in stagnant water.
Artisanal diamond mining is environmentally unsound. Huge swathes of arable land are rendered useless because the topsoil is shovelled away leaving innumerable craters and fetid ponds in their wake. Rivers are crudely dammed and diverted, destroying fisheries and polluting water.
Most artisanal diamond diggers work in the informal sector. ‘Informal sector’ is a polite way of describing illegal behaviour. Diggers operate illegally—in the informal sector—for a variety of reasons. One may be that artisanal mining has been outlawed. Another may be that diggers are working as illegal aliens in another country. It may be that diggers are encroaching on the lease of a mining company. Or it may be that even where artisanal mining is legal, diggers cannot afford to buy the required license.
The places where illicit miners gather are notoriously violent, for obvious reasons. Although few make more than a couple of dollars a day, they deal in a high-value commodity and ever-present security risks. In addition to violence, health conditions are bad and mine sites are incubators for disease. The diggers are prey not only to each other, but to economic vultures who know better than they what their finds are worth. And of course the artisanal diamond fields of Sierra Leone, Angola, DRC and Côte d’Ivoire are where conflict diamonds were spawned because they could be mined without great difficulty or expense.
Historically, governments have dealt with the problem in a variety of ways, all of them regulatory. More and better regulation, however—important as it may be—will not change the plight of the artisanal digger. What remains is a development problem, one that requires development solutions.
That’s why we created DDI: to bring interested governments, civil society organizations and companies together to tackle a longstanding problem, one that is long overdue for serious attention.