Written by Diamonds for Peace Liberia staff
In Liberia’s western region, the main sources of livelihoods are agriculture and mining. Thousands of Liberians in that part of the country work as miners or diggers to provide for their family’s daily bread, pay for their children’s education, and settle other financial responsibilities. Some provide financial and material support to the miners and the diggers to run their mining projects.
Artisanal miners are those men and women who obtain a class C license from the government to own mining claims, mine diamonds or gold consistent with their obtained licenses, and sell those minerals locally to brokers. These people are only permitted to use simple equipment, such as a cutlass, shovel, axe, or digger (this refers to the local instrument used for digging). Under the law they cannot use any heavy duty machines for their mining activities.
The diggers are people, mostly male, who dig for diamonds, while the supporters are those who finance the diggers’ and miners’ mining projects.
A female miner in Weasua in the spotlight
In Liberia there are many women who work as artisanal diamond miners, but this article focuses specifically on Hawa, a female artisanal diamond miner in Weasua. She is a 40 year old Muslim woman, born to poor parents in Mano River Town, Grand Cape Mount County, Liberia. She currently resides in our project community of Weasua. She is married to a diamond digger; they have five children (2 boys and 3 girls) together. Hawa is an illiterate woman who had the ambition to acquire a western education but never got the opportunity. At a very early age, she was sent to live with her aunt who loved her and took good care of her. Her aunt provided food to eat daily, enough clothes to wear, and also allowed her to go out with her friends to have fun. Hawa liked all this, but her aunt didn’t prioritize her education. She made Hawa work as a salesperson in her store while her own children went to school. Though Hawa started school at age 7, she could only finish ABC (Kindergarten class). Hawa was not happy with the decision, but she had no other option because her parents were poor farmers and miners who could not afford to pay for her education. When Hawa was grown up, she found that farming and business were major means for income generation, so she practiced some farming, but mostly worked as a small businesswoman because she had learned a lot from her aunt.
Her life as a miner
Before becoming a miner, Hawa engaged in selling vegetables and cooked food to support her family, and she still continues to do so. At one point in time, she also worked as a supporter to diggers on several diamond projects. However, she realized that supporting diamond projects was not profitable for her. She decided to become a miner after finding out that miners (mining license holders) were making more profits than both supporters and diggers. In her analysis, the miners don’t accrue any expenses on diamond projects except for paying for the license once a year, and yet they get a 50% share of the diamonds recovered from their fields. Meanwhile, the supporters risk losing the resources they invest in diamond projects, and the diggers’ labor is in vain in many instances. This is because the supporters invest their money into diamond projects with an understanding that they will buy the recovered diamonds from the miners and diggers and then sell those diamonds in order to recover their incurred expenses and make a profit. But if they do not find a diamond, their investment is lost. As for the miners, they are in a more relaxed position without the burden of risky investment either in cash or in labor. Against this backdrop, Hawa became a miner in 2010 and has been working as diamond miner and helping her husband to support their family ever since.
Hawa’s ambition for school remains unbending; though she didn’t get the opportunity to be educated, she believes her children should. So her biggest dream is for her children to acquire a quality education.
She faces many challenges associated with life as a diamond miner, but let us consider the major ones indicated below:
- Hawa doesn’t understand how to evaluate rough diamonds; as the result, the buyers often condemn her recovered diamonds and pay less for them.
- When a diamond is recovered from her field, she is obligated to sell to her supporter because the supporter has invested his/her cash to sponsor the mining project. The supporter buys the diamond from her and then sells to a broker or a dealer to recover expenses and make a profit. Under these circumstances, Hawa doesn’t have the power to bargain over price with the supporter. Therefore, the supporter often buys at a conveniently low price.
- She is never sure of when she will find a diamond; she spends time, labor and resources, but most of the time doesn’t get a return.
- She doesn’t currently have a valid license because the fees (USD150 – class C license, USD150 –for the survey, plus other unofficial fees) are high and the process is difficult. Applying for a license requires her to travel a distance of about 200 km from Weasua to Monrovia, the capital city. If she applies for a license, she would have to make several trips back and forth because the ministry takes long time processing the license after the required fees are paid. This is a difficult process and it costs a lot of money in transportation in addition to the required fees.
- If she had the ability to sponsor her own mining projects, she would be able to become independent from the supporters, which could create a platform for her to sell her recovered diamonds to whomever she chooses. It would be to her advantage to bargain over the price, because if she doesn’t feel satisfied with one buyer’s price, she could move on to another buyer and try to sell at a higher price. Unfortunately, she cannot afford the necessary funds to support her own mining operations.
- Because she has a low and unreliable income:
– She is not able to adequately take care of her family responsibilities;
– Her family does not have their basic needs met;
– Her family gets only one meal a day;
– Her family has a very poor housing facility;
– Her family doesn’t have access to a toilet facility; they have to use the bushes and open fields for defecation;
– Though she has all her children in school, she cannot afford to pay the fees for all of them; she has to plead with family relatives to assist her with some of her children’s education.
— Her first child is in the 10th grade;
— The second child is in the 3rd grade;
— The third child is in the Kindergarten class;
— The fourth child is in the 2nd grade;
— The fifth child is in the Kindergarten class.
Four of these children are staying with family relatives and attending school through those relatives’ sponsorship.
Hawa is one of many women who are working as diamond miners; mining diamonds is one of the most common means for income generation in the western region of Liberia. Although Hawa is not involved in digging, and is just a license holder (though she doesn’t have a valid one now), she is nevertheless working under very poor conditions. Her work is challenging, especially given that she has to rely on supporters who often exploit her. She works year in and year out recovering diamonds, but continues to live in poverty. Hawa believes that her continuous dependence on exploitative supporters will keep her in perpetual poverty, so she wants to break away from them. However, she thinks that she cannot achieve this as an individual miner because she has been working by herself for many years and it has not benefited her. Therefore, she has become a member of the cooperative and is now working with other miners with a goal of improving their work and their lives. This cooperative is working with Diamonds for Peace in order to receive the necessary supports.
If you are interested in how Diamonds for Peace has been supporting the cooperative, please read “Our Work.”
Front photo: Hawa and family posed for a photograph after the coordinator interviewed her (photo by Diamonds for Peace)