The Peace Diamond, and the miner who found it, are at the center of a new push to redeem African diamond mining.
Emmanuel Momoh, the first owner of the Peace Diamond, on a trek to the pit where it was found.
PHOTOGRAPHER: KC NWAKALOR FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK
From a pickup truck heading out of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s recent history is legible in the images that scroll beyond the passenger-side window. A hand-painted sign reading “Amputee Lodge” points to a structure serving victims brutalized by an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002. Next comes a billboard that says “Report Bribery,” a plea to resist the corruption blamed for siphoning away international relief funds and obstructing postwar recovery. A faded canvas banner—“Only You Can Stop Ebola”—is a tattered relic from a 2014 outbreak that killed thousands. As we ascend the hills on the city’s periphery, a glance in the rearview mirror reveals a thick brown stripe running down the face of a distant slope: the scar from a 2017 mudslide that devoured the homes of at least 3,000 people, killing more than 1,100 of them.
His name is Emmanuel Momoh, and by general consensus, he’s the luckiest man in Sierra Leone. Until last year, Momoh, 44, wasn’t much different from anyone else in a country where more than 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 per day. He cobbled together his living by selling peanut butter to stores in Kono District, a remote and mostly rural region in the country’s east, and by preaching at an outpost of the Deeper Life Bible Church. The village he called home, Koryardu, consists of 47 cinder block and mud houses, and it’s where he’s headed now.
Millions of years ago, volcanic eruptions oozed across the riverine valleys of eastern Sierra Leone, embedding diamonds into the soil. This geological endowment, first identified in 1930, has since generated billions of dollars in international sales. Closer to home, it’s sustained smuggling networks, fueled wars, and wounded the environment, all while bestowing no visible benefits upon Koryardu and other rural villages.
It has also made locals prone to long-shot gambling. If you have a shovel, you have a chance—that’s the mindset. In Koryardu almost all able-bodied residents have spent years digging, washing, and sifting sand and gravel. The World Bank reports that the artisanal mining sector is the country’s second-largest employer, after agriculture, providing work for between 300,000 and 400,000 people. The diamonds they find are usually tiny, better suited to industrial drill bits than wedding rings. Momoh started as an informally employed digger when he was a teenager, and for about a dozen years (minus a couple during the civil war, when he became a refugee in Guinea) he’d wade through muddy mining pools, digging for eight hours every day, usually finding nothing. In 2006, with a bit of money in his pocket from his peanut butter sales, he became a “supporter,” an organizer who hires a small team of diggers to search on his behalf.
Under an arrangement common in Kono, a supporter pays each of the diggers about $2.50 for eight hours of labor, laying claim to whatever they find. If diamonds are unearthed, the supporters take the stones to local gem brokers, who run conductivity tests to verify that they are indeed diamonds. In most cases, the brokers pay for the diamonds on the spot, and off the books. The supporters go home with a fraction of what the diamond will fetch as a polished gem—maybe 10 percent—and generally toss a few dollars to the diggers as a bonus.
In March 2017, one of the five diggers working for Momoh found a 709-carat rough diamond. To put that in perspective, the average diamond engagement stone in the U.S. weighs about 1 carat, roughly the same as a medium paper clip, and sells for about $6,000, according to industry surveys. This particular rock weighed about the same as a baseball or a D battery. Momoh wrapped it in a piece of white paper, stuffed it in a plastic bag, and recruited five trusted witnesses to accompany him to a local broker for verification. After the stone was tested, it was instantly clear to all present that it was a diamond and worth millions of dollars, maybe tens of millions.