"How could a place where you can literally pick up diamonds from the ground have been reduced to such barbarity and destitution?"
This young guy keeps following me.
I have sought shelter from the rain inside a tin-roofed produce market in Kenema, Sierra Leone. It's the scene of some of the worst brutality in this country’s civil war — a war that ended in 2002 and that perfected the concept of the child soldier.
And I still can't shake him, even after taking two circuits around the haphazard stalls of tomatoes, fiery West African peppers and cubes of chicken bouillon stacked like the pyramid of Cheops. Finally, the prospect of reentering the meat section — with its smoked monkey meat, giant cane rats and swarms of flies — forces me to take a stand.
In a market filled mostly with women and children, this guy is something of an oddity…that, and his lack of an arm.
He reaches — awkwardly — into his grubby pocket and produces a carefully folded and unblemished paper packet. Inside are nestled four rice-grain-sized glassy chips. Yes, he assures me, they are real, not glass. Diamonds!
"Short-Sleeve" or "Long-Sleeve"?
Sierra Leone is a country whose unholy distinctions include earning the world's lowest rank on the UN Human Development Index. Angelina Jolie visits here regularly — which, if you are a developing nation, is not a terribly good sign. And Leonardo DiCaprio recently made a movie about Sierra Leone, aptly titled "Blood Diamond."
I am here to narrate a BBC television documentary titled "Wildlife in a War Zone." I ask the man if he was caught up in the war. He laughs and says "short sleeve," obscenely waving the stump of his arm.
In order to strike terror across the country during the war, the rebels cut off the arms of thousands of dissenters and captives. But they sometimes gave their victims a choice in the cut's placement: "short-sleeve" or "long-sleeve."
The practice terrorized the country far more effectively than the threat of death. Villagers fled their homes, diamonds were left for the taking, trees were felled, wildlife was slaughtered and elephants shot for their ivory.
In short order, the natural capital of Sierra Leone was swiftly stripped and sold. The war here was not about political ideology or religion; it was simply a war of greed.
One Resource, Many Troubles
But how could a place so fortunate — so endowed with timber, water and minerals, where you can literally pick up diamonds from the ground — have been reduced to such barbarity and destitution? Economists have a fancy name for it: "resource curse."
Countries that rely on a single, exploitable natural resource such as diamonds reap a whirlwind of negative consequences: an unhealthy concentration of wealth, a widespread lack of investment, endemic corruption and resource exploitation.
In Sierra Leone, the era of armed exploitation appears to be over and violence is diminishing. A small but committed band of conservationists are hard at work saving the remnant tropical forests, which harbor a remarkable diversity of wildlife, including over a dozen species of primates.
But in other African countries — such as next door in Guinea or in the Delta of Nigeria or in Sudan — conflicts over resources are either imminent or raging.
Resource Management as Peacemaking?
The man tells me he was forced to fight in the war before being captured by rebel soldiers and put to work mining diamonds. He says that he still knows of some pits deep in the forest to which he occasionally returns to, looking for any jewels that were missed — like these he was pressing on me, dropping his price every minute or so.
And he adds that, while he doesn't lament his situation, perhaps his country would have been better off if it had never had diamonds. But it’s difficult to see natural resources as inherently bad. Instead, it’s the stewardship of resources that make them a blessing rather than a curse.
When organizations such as The Nature Conservancy talk about resource stewardship, I sometimes think we are ultimately talking about how to avoid wars. Managed well and shared, resources can help a nation prosper. Exploited and plundered, they feed the few and powerful while starving the many. And once these resources are gone, they're not coming back.
But no matter how thoughtful local stewardship is, the West can always swiftly tip the balance to exploitation. If the demand is high enough for diamonds, coltan or oil — or even water — even the best intentioned plans for sustainable management may go awry. It's not easy to blame the people, the soldiers and the thieves without also implicating the role we might inadvertently play.
Even though the price is now ridiculously low, I am hesitant. I don't know what I would do with these stones. I don't even know if they are real or fake.
As the rain abates, I flee the market. Convinced that his price will eventually be right, the one-armed man still follows.
Originally posted in March 2007. At that time, Sanjayan was the Lead Scientist for the Nature Conservancy. He is now executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International.
The opinions expressed in "Wild Life" are the author's. They should not be construed as the position of the Nature Conservancy.