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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 19:37 GMT
Mixed blessing of diamonds in CAR
By Lucy Jones in Bangui
Central African Republic, (CAR), is learning the hard way that diamonds may affect the future of its towns in a negative way.
Diamonds, which are boosting the economy of the remote town of Boda, are also threatening the prospects of the future elite and the health of its people.
Alongside oil, diamonds have remained a big factor in Angola's 40-year civil war.
Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi have been accused of looting diamonds and other minerals from DR Congo during the ongoing war.
Now Boda, a small town located 150 km west of the capital, Bangui, is witnessing the effect that diamonds have on its society.
Its 10,000 inhabitants live in neat brick villas, some with running water and electricity, instead of the wood and corrugated-iron dwellings typical of the CAR.
Rowdy bars, neon lights and gold-clad traders on powerful motorbikes make Boda a world apart from neighbouring towns.
The town's shops are full of electrical goods, while minibuses leave daily for the capital.
In a country where few households have telephones, the local post office advertises the cost of calls to faraway places such as Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Belgium and New York.
"We're producing between 200 and 250 carats of diamonds a month. And some of these diamonds are big," says head of the mining police in Boda, Jean-Firmin Mogbanede.
Diamonds have been mined at Boda for more than a century.
Some elderly residents remember the time when French companies controlled the mines.
But since independence in 1960, diamond dealing has become the domain of local Muslim families.
All the mines are opencast, such as the operation run a Boda-based company, Namica, which employs more than 200 people.
At a nearby river, young boys dive to the bottom bringing buckets of sediments to the surface for sifting.
When they find diamonds they sell them to collectors, who are easily identifiable by their satchels, where pea-size diamonds wrapped up in bits of paper are secreted for safe-keeping.
"This is good work. I've found enough diamonds to buy a car, build a house and feed two wives and six children," says Samini Ahmad, 32, as he digs.
"Diamonds are addictive. You find one large diamond, so you hire people to help you mine more but sometimes you don't discover one for weeks," says Joseph Bonde.
But while the presence of diamonds mean people have money to spend, the police say the industry leads to high crime rates in Boda.
"Thieves break into people's houses while they are at the mines," says the head of Boda police station, Eulope Songuet-Dimanche.
Cannabis use is rising among diamond collectors, who believe the drug smuggled from the Democratic Republic of Congo gives them strength.
Violent behaviour is a problem, especially near the town's strip of busy bars.
A special mining police exists to prevent non-authorised people from entering the diamond zones, but some gems are still smuggled out.
Teachers say many children have no interest in attending school as they can make a living from a young age searching for precious stones.
"Children don't have a childhood here. As soon as they are strong enough, they go out with their parents to look for diamonds," says Elie Lebissabunta, a French teacher in Boda.
They spend the money they get from selling diamonds on alcohol and women, not on books, he says.
Many diamond collectors come from other areas of the country.
HIV and Aids
The combination of fast living and a transitory workforce has led to an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases in the town.
Health workers at the hospital have no idea how many people have Aids, as they have no facility to check for the HIV virus, but they suspect the rates are high.
The hospital's chief doctor, Sylvester Stalonge says that when the men get paid, they go out to the bars and spend the money on women.
"Few people use condoms here," he says
Earning up to $1,200 US dollars a month, way above the national average income, diamond collectors consider themselves rich enough to afford anti-viral drugs if they contract the HIV virus.
They wrongly believe that the drug cures the deadly disease.
But not everyone working in the mines earns high wages.
The collectors employ "diggers" to excavate the ground.
The workforce is normally supplied by nomadic Pygmy tribes.
They live for months in tents made out of sacks next to the mines because they are paid little more than subsistence-level salaries, not enough for rented accommodation in the town.
A Pygmy, Fidele Koba explains that they have been forced to abandon their traditional occupation in the bush in search for greener pastures in Boda town.
"We come here for the money. If we hunt and fish and farm our land we are simply unable to get money."
However they are claim that they do not enjoy equal rights like their other colleagues.
"A lot of Pygmy people are working for money now. But we are paid less than other workers," says Eugene Gende.
Surrounded by piles of diamonds and gold, the head of Namica, Ali Kassala, complains too.
He says there is an abundance of gems in the area but the prices he receives for them in Bangui are low.
He appeals to the outside world to invest in the industry.
"We need foreign partners so proper investments can be made in proper machinery," he says, letting uncut diamonds run through his hands.
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