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You Know About Sierra Leone’s Diamond Diggers, But Do You Know About Its Diamond Divers?

Diamond divers in Sierra Leone shot in the short film "The Divers of Sewa" by Laurent Cartier and Justin Badenhorst

New York City. Sept. 15, 2020. It was 2007 when Laurent Cartier the student was backpacking through Sierra Leone and heard about the diamond divers of the Sewa River. While not specifically interested in diamonds at that time—he was getting his master’s degree in Geological and Earth Sciences from the University of Basel, Switzerland—his curiosity was piqued. He stayed in touch with new friends who knew of the diamond divers of the Sewa River and in April 2019 returned to the country once ravaged by civil war.

artisanal and small-scale mining

Diamond divers in Sierra Leone in the short film “The Divers of Sewa” by Laurent Cartier and Justin Badenhorst

By this time, Cartier had earned his doctorate in Philosophy and Geosciences and a Fellowship of Gem-A gemology diploma, as well as firmly establishing himself in the international gemology community as a project manager for the Swiss Gemological Institute, or SSEF. Cartier returned to Sierra Leone with a South African photographer named Justin Badenhorst and a goal: to film these artisanal diamond divers and share their story—a human side to the diamond industry. The pair unveiled “The Divers of Sewa,” a nine-minute 21-second short film that debuted earlier this year during the Tucson gem shows and at the Münich Inhorgenta fair.

“I became aware that there were a few thousand diamond divers worldwide—some in Brazil, Ghana, and Angola as well—and I thought that’s a pretty small number compared to artisanal diamond miners,” he says.

Umaru and Ibrahim on a canoe with recovered gravel from the Sewa river.

Diamond divers Umaru and Ibrahim on a canoe with recovered gravel from the Sewa river.

Cartier, his wife, and the photographer stayed six days to film and get to know the divers. What they learned was fascinating. The divers (Cartier met 10) doubled as farmers for most of the year, diving only from January to May; the rainy season is from May to November. The men work in teams, diving upwards of 10 meters, or nearly 33 feet, at a time for an hour, filling up buckets of gravel from the bottom of the river. A tube attached to a compressor on a canoe pumps air into the diver’s mouth. The river bottom is cold, with zero visibility. Back on land, they dump the buckets and sift through in search of diamonds.

“There is a tradition of looking for diamonds there,” says Cartier. “Their fathers have done the same, looking for ways to feed their families.”

The divers know what to look for, including a certain type of gravel—a remnant of an older riverbed. “There are places in the river where minerals get concentrated,” Cartier adds. During the search, a feeling of excitement overwhelms. Will they find something?

Diamond divers Dauda and Ibrahim working on a canoe on the river.

Diamond divers Dauda and Ibrahim working on a canoe on the river.

They didn’t during Cartier’s stay, but hope was ever present. “It might take weeks to find a few small diamonds,” he says. “A gold miner has better options to find a little bit of gold every day.”

And when the divers do find stones—some have found diamonds upwards of 50 carats in weight—the payday can be healthy. Divers routinely sell to local supporters who fund their efforts by way of daily food, a salary, paying for equipment and canoe rental, or government fees; it depends on the agreement negotiated. Once a payment is made to a diver, saving that money or spending it wisely can be difficult. Most divers don’t have bank accounts, and entire villages can be dependent on them once they find out. While touring a village where the divers lived, Cartier saw a Mercedes Jeep owned by a diver who had found a sizable stone. Two years after selling his find and acquiring the vehicle, the owner could no longer afford petrol to drive it.

And do diamond buyers—consumers and jewelry store owners—ever hear about these special diamonds or sell them with the story of where they came from? Not that Cartier knows.

Diamond divers sifting through gravel on the river.

Diamond divers sifting through gravel on the river.

“These goods can go anywhere, but they should be tracked outside of having a Kimberly Process certificate,” he says. “It’s pretty sad, actually; with stories like this, industry could move the needle a little bit to inspire demand. People tend to forget that there are humans behind these stones. At all the sustainability conferences that take place in industry, how many bring an artisanal miner to talk? These men are proud of the work they do.”

Patricia Syvrud of the Minerals, Materials and Society program at the University of Delaware saw the film and was understandably impressed. Syvrud is a well-known participant in sustainability discussions industrywide and knows the struggles in educating buyers about supply chains.

Diamond divers in Sierra Leone shot in the short film "The Divers of Sewa" by Laurent Cartier and Justin Badenhorst

Diamond divers in Sierra Leone in the short film “The Divers of Sewa” by Laurent Cartier and Justin Badenhorst

“Having people not understand the lives upstream in the supply chain is not unique to the diamond industry,” she says. “There are so many misconceptions about the artisanal and small-scale mining industry, that it means illegal activity and conflict diamonds. It doesn’t! To these divers, diamonds are so incredibly important to their lives.”

And while the film doesn’t necessarily issue a call to action, it should firmly implant a human image of whom you are helping when you buy diamonds. The stones found by the divers of Sewa may get sucked into the bigger supply chain and sold anonymously, without their rich backstory, but these stories are important to share because they are part of the larger responsible sourcing landscape.

“This movie should be running on a loop in retail stores!” says Syvrud. “It’s powerful.”


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