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Bellekpalamu in Gbarpolu County

Greetings from Liberia!

Two DFP board members, including myself, left Japan 24 October 2016 arriving Liberia two days later via Cote d’Ivoire. The purpose of the trip was to conduct a field survey and understand the real situation of artisanal diamond miners, diggers and their families in hopes of designing a proposed self-reliance project.

We visited Taylors Farm about a two hour drive from Monrovia, the capital city the first week and then Bellekpalamu in Gbarpolu County six hours drive on unpaved road the second week; both artisanal diamond mining communities.

On the Way

We had to disembark our rugged Jeep when we reached this rocky hill, forcing us to walk over it. Without the Jeep to protect us, we suffered under the blazing sun, but made it safely.

Rocky hill
Rocky hill
The beautiful scenery seen from the top of the hill.
The beautiful scenery seen from the top of the hill.

We came across the overloaded car which was stuck in the mud for two hours. They were finally able to get their engine started with a little help from our strong battery.

Stuck car

There were various checkpoints at the borders of counties/districts. The police officers checked our passports and official documents issued by the Ministry. We saw some people from Sierra Leone caught for illegal mining. The officer told us that it’s a big problem because illegal miners smuggle diamonds and enjoy all the profits while the local community where the diamonds are from don’t receive benefits at all.

Bellekpalamu Diamond Mining Community

We arrived there early evening. Local people let us stay at one of their homes. Three women, including myself, slept in one bed!

We explained the purpose of the field survey to the authorities in the town and drew lots (random sampling) to select the interviewees (miners and diggers) to interview the next day.

The most difficult things for local people to understand were: 1) the purpose of this survey and 2) random sampling.

The Purpose of This Survey

The purpose of the survey is to understand the real situation for artisanal miners, diggers and their families to design the project to improve their self-reliance. We are not interested in the mining itself but are interested in the working and living conditions of the workers. Sadly, most outsiders visiting Bellekpalamu are more interested in mining; enhancing their own profits without thought of the workers who suffer in the process. Some local people were suspicious of our stated purpose in visiting Bellekpalamu. Even if they did believe us, they asked again after the interview “why are you doing this?”

Random Sampling

In a country like Liberia, the authority usually appoints certain people whom we can interview. Appointing someone means there’s an intention. In order to avoid as much intentions as possible, we want to take the random sampling method. However, because local people, including the authority, have never heard of or experienced random sampling, it took them a long time to understand why we needed to implement such a strategy.

We explained that we needed to understand the real situation and that’s why we needed to select the interviewees randomly again and again. Additionally, we involved the authority in the sampling process by having them pick the numbered tickets. Finally they could understand how important it was to do it in such a manner.

Interviews

Diggers, the marginal stakeholder in the value chain of diamonds, were happy that someone like us were interested in how they live and were willing to listen to them. They receive two meals a day instead of wages. They could earn money only when they found a diamond. Diamond digging is an unstable job because they never know when they will find one. At the same time, the employer or the supporter who supports the employer, can order a digger not to come to work anymore. Workers claimed that they were not well taken care of, especially when they get sick.

Interview with a digger
Interview with a digger

On the way to mining sites, a 30 minute walk in a rain forest, sometimes people are bitten by unknown insects.

Bush

There are many artisanal diamond mining sites like this in a forest of Bellekpalamu. There are an estimated 1,000 diamond workers.

Mining claim in Bellekpalamu

Mining claim in Bellekpalamu2

Miners and diggers discussed many issues with us, for instance poverty, undisclosed prices of diamonds, unstable jobs, and unfair practices. Root causes of these issues can be summarized in the following two points:

1) Transactions and decision-making behind closed doors:

A miner or a supporter who provides meals and tools to the diggers sell a diamond to a broker behind closed doors. After the sale, the miner gives the share to the diggers by telling them the sales price of the diamond, for example “it was 1,000 USD.” However, diggers cannot tell if the miner is telling the actual price. That’s why they become suspicious and feel the miner and supporter gives them an unfair price.

The same applies to decision-making. Diggers usually cannot take part in the process of decision-making of any kind. Given the prevalence of corruption, people who don’t participate in or don’t have a chance to observe the decision- making process become suspicious and begin imagining various other things.

2) Poor or no record keeping:

People don’t have a custom in keeping records. They cannot prove their deals, don’t keep their word and get confused about many aspects to the sale. It is difficult to trust each other under these circumstances.

A worker who rose up

In Bellekpalamu, I was very impressed to learn of one worker who rose up to attempt to alleviate the issue of one-sided violence to diggers since he had arrived three years before.

He organized the diggers’ group after convincing the authorities concerned, namely the Town Chief and Mining Agent. It is amazing that he called for an election to elect a leader of the group. It should have been a lot of work to implement a democratic process where democracy is still young.

Owning to this group’s efforts these past three years, the cases of one-sided violence to diggers are now almost non-existent. Such grassroots movements may be impactful in other areas.

In Bellekpalamu, this amazing change-agent volunteered to take us to meet miners, diggers and their families. Everyone in the town knows him. It was evident that people trusted and respected him.

He came to Bellekpalamu as a digger and became a miner several months ago. He also organized tribal groups in the town. We could see his talent in mobilizing people. His next goal is to go back to university to resume his study.

The founder and leader of the diggers group
The founder and leader of the diggers group

A community primary school construction project in process. Community members put their money and labor into the construction of this vital educational project. Until finished, a local church houses the school children.

Community school under construction
Community school under construction

The principal shared that, in addition to building issues, that this school has only two teachers grade 1 to 6 which causes great concern. When we visited that day, he was alone to teach every grade! (I don’t know how he can do it). The other teacher was on leave.

It is quite impressive that people are trying to improve the situation of the community with what they can.

Eye catch photo: Children during lunch break saw us off