Diamonds worth $140 million were produced in Sierra Leone in 2005, but they're as much a curse as a blessing to that African nation. Miners strip the topsoil and ruin farmland, pollute rivers and decimate fishing. Approximately 110,000 "informal" miners work in dangerous, unsanitary conditions for about a dollar a day in cash and rice.
Martin Rapaport, outspoken publisher of an eponymous diamond-pricing guide, believes charity alone won't help. In 2005, with help from the U.S. Agency for International Development and nonprofit Global Witness, he invested more than $60,000 to set up four cooperatives employing 240 miners in Sierra Leone's Kono region.
So far, though, the co-ops have yielded only $3,000 worth of diamonds; searching for gems in streams is less efficient than large-scale industrial mining. So Rapaport is pursuing another strategy: fair trade. "If there are people who will pay more for fair-trade coffee, there are people who will pay more for fair-trade diamonds," he reckons.
Under his plan, diggers in Kono will register and be invited to bring diamonds to a public auction. Rapaport says he will pay 5% more than the gems' market value. After independent monitors ensure that diggers are paid about a third of the purchase price, a "development diamond" label will be applied before gems are shipped to jewelers.
Rapaport hopes Sierra Leone will start shipping fair-trade rocks within a few months. Will his market-driven remedy work? "Better prices is the key," agrees Ian Smillie, research coordinator for Partnership Africa Canada. "But the challenge will be to do it in a way that doesn't turn into a gold-rush type of frenzy, drawing even more poor people into already overcrowded fields."
Amount spent by the World Diamond Council to counter fallout from the new film, Blood Diamond, set in Sierra Leone: $15 million
A version of this article appeared in the February 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.