A Firsthand Look at the Ebola Crisis and the Diamond Industry

The Ebola outbreak is grabbing all the headlines, yet most of us don’t think about whether it affects our industry. But it does—West Africa is a significant source of diamonds, and the artisanal miners in the affected countries produce (depending on the estimates) about 1 percent of the world’s diamonds by value. That is, perhaps, not statistically significant, but it’s still a good deal of diamonds—and diamond mining in West Africa involves a good deal of people. 

Babar Turay is an experienced ecologist who has worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development and Estelle Levin Ltd., with a focus on gold and diamond mining in Sierra Leone. A Sierra Leone native currently living in the diamond district of Kono, Turay has written about his personal experiences in a series of blog posts for Estelle Levin Ltd. (the first one is here), and he agreed to answer questions from JCK about the disease and how it’s affected the diamond sector in Sierra Leone.

JCK: How has Ebola affected diamond mining in Sierra Leone? 

Babar Turay: Since mining—especially of diamonds—is only second to agriculture in terms of the [country’s workforce], and the highest income earner in especially the district of Kono, it has been the worst affected sector during the Ebola crisis…. Investors who are key to the effective running of the industry in terms of cash flow have all been scared away by the outbreak.

Diamond mining in Sierra Leone largely depends on the partnership along a chain that has established trust (diggers, landowners, buyers/dealers, etc.). The interdependence of these business partners is so important that any break in the chain causes significant impact on the whole sector. 

JCK: Has production decreased?

Turay: Absolutely, production especially in the artisanal sector has dropped considerably because the intensity of mining itself dropped…. The quantities [produced now] are not worth the risk for an investor to move from Europe or the Middle East into an Ebola-infested zone. 

JCK: Is any mining continuing? 

Turay: Mining has been reduced in terms of scale but hasn’t stopped. As it continued at the height of the civil war, I am not surprised. The key difference now, though, is that it is done only for survival and not on any commercially viable scale. 

JCK: Is there anything about the nature of how diamonds are mined in Sierra Leone that helped the disease spread?

Turay: No, the district is still not among the named epicenters of the outbreak, and while the western area has had over 800 confirmed cases to date, Kono has yet to reach its 35th confirmed case. 

However, the initial ban on all gathering—and, in effect, artisanal mining activities in large groups—was a step in the right direction. The nature of the mines would have been a recipe for the wild spread of the disease. However, only a few miners have braved it to mine in smaller groups. 

JCK: How did the country contain the disease? How effective were its measures?

Turay: The leaders of the three worst affected countries (Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone) were totally ineffective in the handling of the outbreak in terms of putting the disease under control, handling the border crossing of people, dishonesty about the affected areas and population, prioritization of the outbreak…. This situation was exacerbated by the weak medical systems in place before the outbreak and the misinformation on the symptoms and signs of the disease. 

JCK: Are you worried about your personal safety?

Turay:  I am seriously worried about my safety and my family’s. The rate of infection is still on the rise, and the World Health Organization has predicted 10,000 new cases per week if nothing is done about the current trend of infection. It is virtually impossible for one, especially in this part of the world, to isolate oneself in a crowd. We all need each other in one way or the other to survive. 

JCK:  We hear so much about Ebola on the news in the United States. Are there any misconceptions that we have?

Turay: The stigma attached to everybody living in the worst affected areas in West Africa is exaggerated. It is not like everybody here is locked up in houses waiting for supplies or gifts through windows. Dead bodies are not seen lying all over the place. It will surprise you to land in an airplane today in Freetown and see the number of people out on the street buying and selling.  

JCK:  What can the industry do to help the Ebola crisis?

Turay: Based on my experience in the mining industry in Sierra Leone, the diggers and miners who are at the bottom of the chain are affected the most when there is a halt in the industry. This is simply because they depend on support from their financiers for their day-to-day activities to survive without any reserves at home or in banks. The Ebola crisis is no different from other major crises that the district has suffered in the past. This is why violence is easily sparked when the source of basics for living are drastically limited.

To my eyes, what is needed the most are supplies that can take people beyond this emergency period to resume their normal lives. People need trade within the bounds of what is possible whilst managing the risk of contagion. Specifically in Kono, we also need to find ways to get food to people quarantined in their homes and to vulnerable families impacted by the disease. Also any form of sanitary or medical supplies that community groups and families can use to improve conditions and limit the spread of the disease. 

The international diamond industry should identify who in the Sierra Leonean diamond communities has been most negatively impacted by this. They should engage importers of diamonds from Sierra Leone to see what could be done through their existing relationships with people here.    

To contribute to the fight against Ebola, visit Doctors Without Borders or see this list.   

UPDATE: National Jeweler talks with the Diamond Development Initiative for its perspective, and notes that contributions to DDI can be earmarked for Ebola relief.   

JCK News Director