Thousands of people dependent on diamond mining in the eastern regions of the Central African Republic (CAR) earn pitiful wages and are continually harassed by local and foreign armed groups, says a new study by the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Poverty and crime characterize the diamond business in CAR, according to the report entitled Dangerous Little Stones: Diamonds in the Central African Republic.
“The inability of artisanal miners to escape poverty holds back development in mining areas and increases the risk of young men and women joining rebel groups in the hope of better alternatives,” it said.
Low education levels, high mining costs and limited production have had adverse effects. “Miners are mostly ignorant of a diamond’s real value and, even if they know it, they are obliged to sell at the price offered, sometimes by written contract to the collector who financed the work… A collector might buy a one-carat diamond from a miner at 80,000 CFA francs [US$160] and sell it to a buying office for 200,000-300,000 CFA francs [$400-$600],” said the report.
Additional costs such as the hiring of equipment and licensing fees make for a hand-to-mouth existence, especially for those struggling to feed large families.
CAR’s diamond deposits are alluvial, making extraction harder and industrial mining less feasible. At present, production is based on trial and error methods, and the use of shovels and baskets to collect gravel from river beds. An estimated 80,000-100,000 miners depend on artisanal mining for a livelihood.
The ICG report recommends formalizing the mining sector to lower mining-related costs, lift living standards and reduce illegal mining networks. Weak law enforcement benefits illegal miners and traders, with bandits also profiting in mining zones. The report also calls for the expansion of livelihood activities, including agriculture. According to the UN Children’s Fund, chronic malnutrition in CAR stems from, among other things, loss of income in mining areas.
Armed groups such as the Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix (CPJP) and the Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement (UFDR) remain active in the eastern diamond zone, making “the east a dangerous place to live and move around”, said the report, which noted that while diamond profits are not the only reason for rebel activity, they have contributed to making such rebellions harder to end in CAR.
In late November, the CPJP took over the town of Birao in the northeastern province of Vakaga, causing population displacement after the departure of UN Mission troops deployed there. The CPJP has since been ousted by joint CAR-Chadian army soldiers.
The UN mission in CAR and Chad was established in 2007 to protect civilians, facilitate humanitarian assistance and protect UN personnel in eastern Chad and northeastern CAR. It ended in May at the request of the Chadian government which pledged full responsibility for protecting civilians on its territory.
According to a 1 December report by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the UN Security Council, risks in the northeast are attributable to ethnic, economic and political issues, with security remaining "stable, yet fragile" as security forces in Birao have limited capacity to fend off potential attacks.
Ban added that the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) also posed a threat, although the major sources of insecurity are banditry and people passing through the area with arms to sell. The most urgent threat, Ban said, stems from armed internal political opposition groups, especially the CPJP.
The LRA presence further south is, according to the ICG, “yet another reason for the UFDR to postpone disarmament”. A July decision by President Francois Bozizé - for Ugandan soldiers in pursuit of the LRA in CAR to leave Sam Ouandja, in Haute Kotto Province, in favour of more international support - left a gap which has been filled by UFDR.
The lack of peacekeepers there, given the Ugandan army withdrawal, is cause for concern as “[Ugandan] troops provided at least some protection to civilians,” said advocacy group Resolve.
Insecurity in parts of the southeast, due to the LRA presence, often forces residents to leave their villages. The population in and around M'Boki, Zémio, Rafaï and Obo in Mbomou and Haut-Mbomou provinces has almost doubled, with impacts on food and water availability, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The two provinces border the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Orientale Province and Southern Sudan’s Western Equatoria region, which have also come under a series of LRA attacks, prompting a recent call by humanitarian agencies for international action against the LRA.
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