…a packrafting journey into the heart of Sierra Leone and Liberia's Peace Park…supported by the RGS Journey of a Lifetime grant

The rock and a hard place.

IMG_2745In the forest I have nothing to fear.

The worst of the animals are not aggressive, they will not seek confrontation nor are they overtly curious, I can adjust my shelter to deal with the worst of the weather, I’m competent, almost in control, but people, people are totally unpredictable.

I allow my kit to dry on the rocks for most of the morning. Just before mid-day the mixer screen blinked back into life <fist pump> I pack up and leave that rapid behind me. One of the only good things about being on really immersive expeditions is that you don’t have time to dwell on your last experience, once it’s done it’s done, learn from it and move on. In March 2012 I was making a first descent of a whitewater river in West Papua when my partner Callum was sucked clean under an overhang and pinned underwater for almost a minute. It was the single most terrifying experience I have ever had on expedition and had it happened during training would have signaled the end of the day, if not week, of paddling. He popped up in the middle of the river, ashen faced and soaked through. I had grabbed his raft as it free-floated downstream, we found his paddle and even his hat, he took a couple of deep breaths and then we got on with it. It was bizarre looking back, he could’ve been killed, easily, but we hardly even talked about it, in fact, we’ve never really talked about it.

I had lost so much time I decided to skip my break that afternoon and paddle on through the heat. At mid-day I rounded a corner and my stomach dropped. There, consuming the Liberian bankside, was a massive open pit full of huge blokes. After several days of total, untouched, isolation it was shocking in itself but I knew I had further reason for worry. This, almost certainly, was an illegal diamond mine. As I got close I could make out at least 30 men stood on top of a massive bank of excavated sand, staring me down, a generator whirring in the background, pumping water out of the pit and back into the river.

This was certainly going to be a test. I was totally alone. A white man who had already been mistakenly assumed to be a neo-colonial exploiter or a member of the GRNP, no one could guess the nigh-on inconceivable reality that I was in fact a professional adventurer here to make a radio program about the forest. It wasn’t like I could avoid the camp either; it took up half the river.

It’s hard not to talk about Sierra Leone and Liberia without reverting to the ‘blood diamond’ crutch. It’s a lazy stereotype, yet a bad reputation sticks. There are no more ‘blood diamonds’ in Sierra Leone or Liberia. The practice of mining the region’s diamonds to finance the conflict ended along with the war over a decade ago. However, the industry remains largely unmechanised with 80% controlled by 300,000 artisanal miners who mainly mine by hand. As such the Government makes little: only $3-4 million from an estimated $100 million industry. Smuggling and illegal activity are rife and, as I was about to find out, the industry remains largely unpoliced and unregulated.

I paddled up to the mine with my heart in my mouth. I shouted ‘hello’. No one answered. They were talking in raised voices among themselves, more people poured from the tarpaulin tents at the back, crowding to see this ridiculous and unlikely scene. I couldn’t look beyond their muscles, like coiled steel cables on impossibly large frames, some had towels on their heads, ripped t-shirts and shorts, no one had shoes. I didn’t want to think it but I couldn’t help it. This was illegal activity on a massive scale; I was a solo, unannounced and almost certainly unwelcome intruder. This suddenly felt very very dangerous indeed.

Diamonds are typically formed in the region of 90 to 120 miles below the earth’s surface under intense pressure and heat over a period of 1 to 3 billion years. The only way anyone can ever hope to get access to them, even with cutting edge mining equipment, is when a massive subterranean volcanic eruption forces them up towards the earth’s surface. Control the spout of the volcano and you control the mineral, just ask Cecil Rhodes who in 1871 discovered a 83.5 carat diamond on his farm in South Africa’s Kimberley, used the profits to buy up the claims of other small holders in the region and established ‘De Beers’, today the largest diamond mining and trading corporation on the planet. Sierra Leone had a volcanic eruption on the scale of the Kimberley at some point, and certainly had the equivalent number of diamonds, yet a total lack of infrastructural development meant this eruption went unnoticed and with one of the heaviest rainy seasons on the planet the precious stones were spread right across the eastern province. Diamonds could be found virtually anywhere by anyone: cleared roads, housing foundations and increasingly in riverbeds, where the stones had slowly washed downstream. The diamond rush, when it came, caused thousands to down tools and walk from their farms in the hope of finding a life-changing gem. Food shortages became a massive problem as a result and then, of course, there was that war.

I kept shouting “hello” as I approached before finally receiving a friendly enough “good morning” in return. That settled me down a bit but it was obvious I was not welcome. There was nothing I could do; this confrontation was literally unavoidable. I was hauled out of the raft and taken to the top of a huge bank of mud. I decided to just go for the jugular from the off:

“So have you found any diamonds?” I asked jovially,

“Yes” came the response from one, which was immediately adjusted to an emphatic “no” by another.

Listening back to the recording it was incredible that they were forthcoming with answers at all. I had literally come from nowhere, waltzed onto their illegal mine with a recorder and huge fluffy microphone and started asking them about their work. You wouldn’t get away with that in the UK that’s for sure. I asked a few more questions, a couple of the guys spoke up: “we are just prospecting, we dig and look for the gravel where the diamond lives. Then we wash the gravel through the shaker…”

They had been there for two months digging by hand with shovels.

“You guys are all so big! I was scared!” I declared wimpishly. Honesty, in such situations, is the best policy.

Everyone laughed. I felt less intimidated and switched off the recorder to introduce myself properly and work out how, or if, I was going to be able to get this incredible story on tape.

A wily middle-aged man who introduced himself as ‘the boss’ approached me: “who do you work for?” he asked me straight up and everyone fell silent. It was a very fair question. I explained what I was doing, about the adventure and the BBC. It was clear he still thought I worked for the National Park, it was equally clear what the consequences would be if I did, but the two things going distinctly in my favour was the radio kit I had in my hands and the fact that I was alone. “Whites from the National Park are never alone” the boss man eventually concluded. My supreme stupidity had saved me once again.

What followed over the next hour was actually perfectly pleasant. I chatted to most of the workers, asked who was the best digger, had a go at digging my own diamond and generally carried on like I was presenting a Blue Peter special on illegal mining and not in fact, a door-stepping journalist way out of his depth in the middle of a remote forest.

It was staggering what they had achieved in two months. The pit was big: 30 metres long and at least 18 foot deep with sheer mud sides, all dug by hand. Water poured in constantly, ensuring work always took place in a thick dirt pudding, plus everything they needed (fuel, generators, shelter, food, tools) had to be carried in from the town, five hours away through the forest. “It must get very hot,” I said, pointing out the obvious whilst stood in a tent no more than 6 x 6 foot intended for 8 people. The noise of the generator was deafening but the heat, at midday, with no overhead cover, was bordering on the intolerable. At one side of the pit stood a four-foot high pile of gravel, the grand sum of two months of toil on less than a dollar a day. It was enough to justify another month’s investment from the big boss in Kenema. Find a stone and it is party time, find nothing and you at least leave with a few dollars, which is more than most of these ill-educated lads could hope for otherwise.

A range of men worked the mine, mostly though they were in their twenties, all with kids, and at least one wife. I met one 18-year-old still wearing his school football top. It was his first time in the industry, he liked it but didn’t want a wife yet, not till he was ready, he said. The only man who hadn’t stopped working in the entire mine was also the oldest, 69 years old, and up to his knees in mud.

“Has anyone here ever actually seen a diamond?” I asked as I made my exit.

“No”, came the universal response.

I thought about it afterwards. I couldn’t believe it was true. Some of these men had spent their lives digging for diamonds, it was the ultimate discovery, but they weren’t so rare that not one person in a fifty strong team was yet to lay eyes on one, it would be commercial suicide. In these circumstances the actual ‘cut’ of the sale you would receive as a digger would be small, certainly not enough to hang up your spade for good, but probably enough to keep you hanging on for more. Admitting you had seen or received money for diamonds you’d found in the past could be a potentially divisive move, especially when working in a diamond mine with others who were yet to find their first stone. I wouldn’t want to jeopardise the camp atmosphere in a three-month stint of shoveling by revealing my work experience and past riches. Just as likely though, from their perspective I was a journo outsider possibly looking to stir up trouble, maybe even looking to steal, why would they tell me anything?

Mining is one of the biggest threats to the Gola and the Peace Park, but it was difficult to reconcile the image of the big, bad destructive industry with this clutch of impoverished Liberians. They were just looking for work, any work, and a regular wage. They treat me with a degree of warmth during my hour, which I certainly didn’t feel I deserved, particularly as they insisted on washing my feet as I climbed back into my raft. Increasingly on expedition I have discovered the people actually getting hands-on in illegal industries are among the world’s friendliest, risking life and limb whilst someone else becomes a millionaire.

I just listened back to my recording, at one point I ask the boss if he has a wife:

“yes” he responds.

“It must be difficult?” I continue, meaning, it must be difficult being away all the time.

“yes, married life is difficult” he replied, to much laughter.

 

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