Many of the world’s diamonds are mined using practices that exploit workers, children, and communities. A million diamond diggers in Africa earn less than a dollar a day. Miners are dying in accidents, child labor is widespread, and corrupt leaders are depriving diamond mining communities of funds badly needed for economic development.
Diamond miners who work in small-scale mining – panning or digging for diamonds – produce about 15% of the world’s diamonds. But their wages do not reflect the value of their work. An estimated one million diamond diggers in Africa earn less than a dollar a day. This unlivable wage is below the extreme poverty line. As a result, hundreds of thousands of miners lack basic necessities such as running water and sanitation. Hunger, illiteracy, and infant mortality are commonplace. Even within developing countries, diamond mining communities are often the most impoverished.
How is it that diamond miners can be some of the poorest people on the planet? Small-scale diamond mining is usually an unregulated activity. Labor standards and minimum wage laws, if they exist, are rarely enforced, subjecting miners to the whims of cruel and exploitative employers. Many diamond miners work independently, but these miners tend to be unlicensed and lack access to global markets, limiting their bargaining power. In most cases, diamond diggers have little choice but to sell their diamonds to middle-men at below market prices.
Safety and Health
Besides being grossly underpaid, many diamond miners work in extremely dangerous conditions. Small-scale diamond mining is often conducted without training or expertise. Miners may lack safety equipment and the proper tools. They can easily die or be injured in landslides, mine collapses, and other accidents.
Diamond mining also contributes to public health problems. The sex trade thrives in many diamond mining towns, leading to the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Environmental devastation resulting from diamond mining is another cause of disease. In Sierra Leone, miners have littered the landscape with thousands of abandoned mining pits. These pits fill with stagnant rainwater, become infested with mosquitoes, and serve as breeding grounds for malaria.
Because children are considered an easy source of cheap labor, they are regularly employed in the diamond mining industry. In some areas of Africa, children make up more than a small part of the workforce. One survey of diamond miners in the Lunda Norte province of Angola found that 46% of miners were between the ages of 5 and 16.
For children trapped in the diamond mines, life is full of hardship. Children work long days, often six or seven days a week. Compared with adults, they are even more vulnerable to injuries and accidents. Physically challenging tasks such as digging with heavy shovels or carrying bags of gravel can leave them hurt or in pain. Because of their small size, children also may be asked to perform the most dangerous activities such as entering narrow mineshafts or descending into pits where landsides may claim their lives.
Many child miners do not attend school. As adults, these children often will have little choice but to continue working as miners. Child labor thereby condemns many children to a lifetime in the mines, robbing them as well as their countries of a brighter future. At Brilliant Earth, we believe that every child deserves an education. As part of our non-profit initiatives, we have helped to fund a program that removes children from diamond mines and pays for their schooling.
Governments earn significant revenues from the diamond industry, both through taxation and profit-sharing arrangements. But they often fail to re-invest these funds in local communities. In Angola, the government receives about $150 million per year in diamond revenues. But conditions near major diamond mining projects are appalling. Public schools, water supply systems, and health clinics are non-existent. Many roads have not been repaired since Angola first won independence in 1975.
Corruption, incompetence, and weak political systems all help explain why governments fail to invest their diamond revenues productively. For instance, in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe uses diamond revenues to keep the military loyal and to prop up his corrupt authoritarian regime. Although Zimbabwe has some of the richest diamond fields in the world, only a trickle of diamond revenue is available for economic development. Local residents displaced to make way for diamond mining have even gone hungry and homeless.
A different path is possible. Botswana is an example of a country that has managed its natural resources effectively. Aided by diamond revenues, Botswana has instituted universal primary education and built health facilities and roads. Since gaining independence in 1966, Botswana’s GDP has risen 7 percent per year, transforming it from one of Africa’s poorest countries into a country with a standard of living comparable to that of Turkey or Mexico.