The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the tripartite UN agency that brings together governments, employers and workers of its member states in common action to promote decent work throughout the world.
“[The US government] takes reform of the diamond sector most seriously. Diamonds can contribute to Sierra Leone’s recovery or they can be a source of instability and violence. The United States will continue to assist diamond-producing communities to become more prosperous and secure by realizing a reasonable return on their resource.”
Thomas Neill Hull III, U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone
Small-scale mining is of great economic and social significance. It has been estimated that throughout the world small-scale mining involves approximately 13 million people directly, and affects the livelihoods of a further 80 to 100 million people.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has specified one of the major difficulties with small-scale mining:
The mining and quarrying of industrial minerals and construction materials on a small scale; and the mining of relatively high-value minerals, notably gold and precious stones.
The first is mostly for local markets and exists in every country. Regulations to control and tax these mines and quarries are often in place, and the existence of informal or illegal operations at this level is generally attributable to a lack of inspection and the lax enforcement of regulations rather than to the lack of a legal framework, much the same as for small manufacturing plants.
The output from the second category of small-scale mines is generally exported. The size and character of small-scale mining of this type has often made what laws there are impossible to apply or has highlighted their inadequacy.
Although there are many definitions of “small-scale mining”, alluvial diamond mining clearly falls into the second ILO category. Its unique characteristics appear to make “what laws there are impossible to apply or has highlighted their inadequacy”. Alluvial diamond mining is actually a sub-set of the ILO’s “small-scale” mining definition. The most appropriate term for this is artisanal mining. Again, there is a multitude of interpretations for what this means, but it is not an issue that requires much explanation. As defined by the Government of South Africa, “Artisanal mining means small-scale mining involving the extraction of minerals with the simplest of tools, on a subsistence level”. Artisanal mining of diamonds in Africa is carried out by people working with simple tools and equipment, usually in the informal sector, outside much of the legal and regulatory framework. The vast majority of the diggers are very poor, exploiting marginal deposits in harsh and sometimes dangerous conditions – and having considerable negative impact on the environment. To a large extent, artisanal diamond mining is a livelihood strategy adopted primarily by rural and small village populations for whom it appears to be the most promising income opportunity.
The activities of miners in this sector are often viewed negatively by governments, large companies and environmentalists. Concerns range from the use of child labour and the potential for environmental damage to the use of mine revenue to finance conflict.
At the extreme, governments consider the sector illegal and attempt to ban it through different means. In many cases, they simply neglect it, thereby allowing negative social and environmental impacts to be aggravated. There are no cases in Africa where artisanal diamond mining has been supported and regulated successfully, although South Africa is the most positive case, primarily because the majority of alluvial diamonds are mined on private property which can be policed, and where miners can be paid a wage.
The relationship between large companies and miners is poorly understood and is often troubled, characterized by mutual mistrust and sometimes conflict. Large companies usually consider small-scale miners as “trespassers”, while miners often regard the granting of concessions to large companies as depriving them of their land and livelihoods.
The contribution of artisanal diamond mining to income generation, employment, gross domestic product, export earnings and tax revenues varies dramatically from country to country. In Sierra Leone and the DRC it is important, for oil-rich Angola it is less important, and for South Africa it is insignificant. Sierra Leone’s mineral economy is currently a “one-crop” economy and the “crop” is diamonds. Although there are other minerals mined in Sierra Leone, the diamond sector provides more jobs than any other after subsistence agriculture and is the largest contributor to GDP and export earnings.