Men mining (USAID/Sandra Coburn)
Panning for diamonds at Bobi artisanal diamond mines in the Séguéla region of Côte d'Ivoire (USAID/Sandra Coburn)

In Côte d’Ivoire, a growing number of artisanal, small-scale miners now excavate diamonds using a technique that helps them sell more diamonds while protecting communities and the environment.

The technique was part of a U.S.-backed project that helped transform mining in that West African country.

Close-up of man at mine (USAID/John Dwyer)
A supervisor of the village cooperative at the Bobi mining site in the Séguéla region of Côte d’Ivoire. Cooperatives play an instrumental role in co-managing the diamond chain of custody, from mine to market. (USAID/John Dwyer)

“It is with this work that I get by,” said M. Namata Sany, an artisanal miner in Côte d’Ivoire, in an interview with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency that led the project.

Because they are usually working with limited equipment, small-scale and artisanal miners face pressure to excavate the diamonds quickly, sell fast and move on to other sites, often damaging the environment in the process. If the environment is damaged, communities have nowhere to go for water, agriculture or safe living.

Open hand holding a small diamond (USAID/John Dwyer)
A diamond from the mining village of Dona in Côte d’Ivoire (USAID/John Dwyer)

If artisanal miners operate outside of formal marketplaces, they are often forced to sell gems at artificially low prices. This is because gems without transparent origins are shut out of the international trade.

To protect miners’ livelihoods as well as the environment, USAID started a project that helps give artisanal miners access to a formal, legal supply chain of diamonds.

Here’s how it works in Côte d’Ivoire: First, the project seeks to secure property rights for miners to prospect for precious stones. With documentation, miners can sell their diamonds for higher prices, and their land claims give them a stake in preventing excessive environmental damage.

Miners then work with USAID to create sustainable mines. They store discarded material so that no runoff contaminates local rivers.

New era

Diamond production is now a bigger industry in Côte d’Ivoire. From 2005 until 2014, the international community could not legally import diamonds from the country, because a period of civil war created a market for conflict diamonds. Rebel groups were using the precious stones to fund arms purchases and promote violence. But now, more and more miners are working within a certification system.

To certify that diamonds are “conflict-free,” miners must verify their diamonds with internationally recognized procedures, usually the Kimberley Process or Due Diligence Guidance from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

On left, schoolchildren at desks; on right, a woman watering a vegetable garden (USAID/Sandra Coburn)
Left: This school in the village of Dona and other community resources are funded by the proceeds from nearby diamond mines. Right: Rehabilitated diamond mines are turned into vegetable gardens for the local women’s cooperative in Tortiya. (USAID/Sandra Coburn)

After the war, USAID’s Terah DeJong said, it was unclear what would happen to the country’s artisanal miners. He worked with international partners to allow artisanal miners the ability to export.

“And that immediately meant that the legal chain of custody was complete and the diamonds could flow out correctly,” DeJong said.

The project has also helped mining communities convert former mining sites into fish ponds, agricultural land and beekeeping areas.