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Diamonds are for never

Despite its flaws, the Hollywood blockbuster _Blood Diamond_ introduced Western audiences to the role that diamonds played in fuelling Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. That war ended six years ago. But it remains uncertain whether Sierra Leoneans will be able to harness their natural wealth to promote well-being and peace, especially when one considers the role being played by ruthless transnational mining companies that want their land and jewels.

For one small region of the heavily mined Kono district in Sierra Leone’s east, the problems started in January 2003 when the residents of Monkey Hill were suddenly informed by a Swiss-owned mining company that it had acquired the land on which the villagers’ homes stood. The area included roughly 800 square kilometres of fertile farmland on which 4,500 people depended for their living.

Five months later, the company – Koidu Holdings – held its first proper meeting with the community, telling them that they were going to be relocated to a new site. The proposal was rejected outright by the people. Sixty community members decided to form a group – the Affected Property Owners’ Association (APOA) – which tried to persuade the traditional Chiefs of Kono to intervene on their behalf. But APOA’s chairperson, Kai Boma, claims that the traditional Chiefs were actually colluding with the company. He accuses the Chiefs of using severe pressure and even threats to force him to sign a document which effectively gave Koidu Holdings control over Monkey Hill.

At the time, the local radio station was state-owned. Boma asked the station manager why it was not discussing the plight of the community. ‘I was told that the radio would not address the matter due to its political nature,’ he says.

In response to pressure by APOA and its allies, Koidu Holdings had acquired land to construct 500 houses for those it forced to relocate. By March 2007 – almost three years after Monkey Hill was formally declared the property of Koidu Holdings – around 400 people had been moved against their will to Kimberlite Town, four kilometres away. Yet less than a fifth of the promised homes have been completed. There is no school, health centre, pipe-borne water, electricity or market, all of which had been promised by the company. ‘More people go hungry now… whole plantations have been mined out and we have received no compensation,’ says Isatu Musa, an APOA member.

The war may have ended, but the diamonds of Kono are again being tainted with blood. In December 2007, police killed two protesters while breaking up a peaceful demonstration organized by APOA.

An official inquiry into the Monkey Hill dispute was launched by the Jenkins-Johnston Commission, and in May 2008 it made several progressive recommendations. But with the Government continuing to drag its heels on these and ignoring the people’s grievances, many fear that violence may soon afflict Kono once again.

New Internationalist issue 419 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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