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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Diamonds to Rice

Air Date: Week of

Diamond mining at the Tankoro site in Sierra Leone. (Photo: FESS)

A non-governmental organization teams up with Sierra Leonians to rebuild their war torn country - planting rice fields where once lay the raw earth remnants of conflict diamond mining. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Darci Glass-Royale, executive director of FESS, the Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability, and Daniel Gbondo, a Sierra Leonian who works for FESS in his home country.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. One of the poorest nations on the planet is also one of the richest in diamonds. And for that - Sierra Leone has paid a price in blood.

In the 1990’s the country’s diamond mines fueled a decade of terror, a vicious civil war fought for control of the nation’s mineral wealth. It’s a war many of us know about, but only because of a Hollywood film - “Blood Diamond.”

Seventy-five thousand people were killed in Sierra Leone, tens of thousands maimed and nearly a third of the population driven from their homes. Now the mud-pit diamond mines, which caused so much suffering, are being transformed into fields of rice. The effort is being led by the Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability, or FESS. It gets most of its funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Damaged land to be reclaimed at the Tankoro site.(Photo: FESS)

Darci Glass-Royal is the Co-Founder and executive director of FESS. Ms. Glass-Royal, welcome to Living on Earth.

GLASS-ROYAL: Thank you. Thank you for inquiring about the work that we’re doing in Sierra Leone.

GELLERMAN: Ms. Glass-Royal is in New York City now, traveling with Daniel Gbondo who is the head field organizer for FESS in Sierra Leone and a Sierra Leonean himself. Mr. Gbondo, welcome to Living on Earth.

GBONDO: Thank you very much and thank you for hosting us.

GELLERMAN: Let me ask you Ms. Glass-Royal first: how do you turn a diamond mine into a rice field?

GLASS-ROYAL: It’s a bit of a challenge. After many years of digging the area is left incredibly pitted. It looks like the surface of the moon, if the moon had villages. And what we have done is gone through an extensive process working with local communities to hire workers so that we can begin filing in the soil and take areas of land that are not productive and return them to agriculture.

Reclaiming land at the Tankoro site. (Photo: FESS)

You have to understand that the scale of the problem is huge. In the diamond-producing district it is just pit after pit after pit - you know many of them 30 feet deep, maybe a quarter mile across, filled with water during the rainy season, breeding grounds for malaria. And so if you go in and you look at the hundreds of acres that are waiting to be reclaimed, you could throw up your hands and say ‘this is an impossible task.’

But it was our goal to say that in an area that, because of the rich volcanic soil, can be so agriculturally productive, an area that used to be the breadbasket of West Africa, that there was just no way that the country could continue to grow economically and feed its people without returning to agriculture.

Diamond mining at the Tankoro site in Sierra Leone.(Photo: FESS)

GELLERMAN: Mr. Gbondo, what has been the effect of the civil war upon this area?

GBONDO: The township was completely destroyed. I mean, systematic burning of houses - by street by street, house by house. And some houses were bulldozed and mined and streets were mined for diamonds. Diamonds actually fueled the conflict in Sierra Leone at the time and there was just indiscriminate mining all over the place - destroying the streets, destroying the environment.

GELLERMAN: And I understand that you actually lost some people very close to you during the civil war.

GBONDO: Oh, yeah. My elder brother worked in the diamond mines. He was killed during the civil war. My father was killed during the civil war.

GELLERMAN: How many acres have you been able to convert?

Many of the workers reclaiming the pits fought in the civil war, or are former diamond miners.(Photo: FESS)

GLASS-ROYAL: At this point we’ve picked three demonstration sites. We’ve reclaimed about 50 acres, total. We’ve been able to produce I think close to 500 bushels of rice at this point. Some communities are also - we’ve also planted 400 oil palm trees. And in many areas they have—the communities have underplanted with other vegetables as well - okra, cassava, other crops that will sequentially mature, so that there will also be other food stuffs for those local communities.

GELLERMAN: Daniel, can you tell me a story about someone who’s been influenced by your work? Maybe someone who you know who’s been helped to recover from the civil war because of this project?

Creating swamp rice field at the Tankoro site.(Photo: FESS)

GBONDO: Oh yes. We have people who were former combatants and some former miners working on our project. And they will tell us stories of how they were suffering during the war and- but they’re getting benefits from our project, in part because they’re being part of this project which is transforming their lives as well as their communities. They help to ruin the land in the first place, and they now have the opportunity to put it back into productive use. And one of them was able to save some money and give to his wife to start small business, which is really very important for them because we’re talking about an extended family, not a small family in the United States. We’re talking about uncles, aunts and cousins all living together. Through this project he has been able to support his wife with some money and she is trying to do small businesses with that money.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Gbondo, it seems to me you’re in a unique position. I mean here you are working for this NGO, this nongovernmental organization, and you bring together the two worlds. You’re helping your country in the process and you can join it with kind of this Western association.

GBONDO: For me, I see myself lucky in a way to be part of this. Talking to my American friends, you talk to them about Sierra Leone and all they know is the “Blood Diamond” movie—‘oh, these guys are just good at killing people.’ But this project is telling the other side of the story. That there are efforts out there to address the problems associated with diamond mining—environmental problems, social problems, health risk in Sierra Leone. And I see this as an opportunity that I am part of it: one, to help transform my society, and two, to help spread a message that there is another side to diamond mining in Sierra Leone.

GELLERMAN: It seems to me, Ms. Glass-Royal, that this project isn’t just about land use.

GLASS-ROYAL: This project is about transforming communities and bringing stability and growth to a fragile but very critical part of the world.

GELLERMAN: Darci Glass-Royal is the co-founder and executive director of the Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability. Daniel Gbondo is the head field organizer for FESS in Sierra Leone. Well I want to thank you both very much for joining us.

GLASS-ROYAL: And thank you for hosting us.

GBONDO: Thank you very much for having us here.



FESS: Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability

To read the FESS report on "Improving Environmental Management and Mitigating Land-Use Conflicts in Alluvial Diamond Fields in Sierra Leone" click here.


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