I was getting better at predicting the severity of an approaching rapid from the auditory clues: a flat ‘burrrrr’, like a washing machine, meant that it was safe; a slight burble was too shallow; a heavy jet engine was deadly and would require portaging; but it was the dull rumble that I feared the most – those were the 50–50s and the type that I encountered the most.
One day, I came across a sound unlike any I had heard before. It was a chugging, industrial noise and it was coming from directly downstream. I back-paddled. It didn’t make sense – this patch of West African jungle was definitely uninhabited.
I rounded a thickly forested corner and there, dead ahead, was a deep pit full of huge men. A thick pipe pumped river water out of the hole. This, almost certainly, was a massive illegal diamond mine. Someone started shouting and semi-naked men quickly began to gather on top of a large earthen bank. I had been spotted.
I gulped hard and flicked the sound recorder on. This was going to be a big test for all of us.
In the spring of 2013, Sierra Leone and Liberia were due to combine their sections of the critically endangered Upper Guinean forest belt to form a trans-boundary ‘peace park’. As it was planned, the park would bring together the 75,000-hectare Gola Forest Reserve in Sierra Leone with Liberia’s Lofa and Foya forest reserves (80,000 hectares and 100,000 hectares respectively).
Earlier that year, I had received the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s Journey of a Lifetime Award – including funding and a slot on BBC Radio 4 – for my idea to packraft the Moro, the jungle river that forms the international boundary between these two nations and flows through the heart of the proposed conservation area.
Spring arrived all too soon, as did I. On my touchdown in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, it immediately became apparent that the peace park project was badly behind schedule. Sierra Leone had kept its half of the bargain, establishing the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP) in 2011, but Liberia, in a fug of dodgy logging deals that had led to the suspension of the board of directors at the Forestry Development Authority, had failed to elevate the status of its reserves. Without national park status for both sections, the peace park would be meaningless and effectively unprotected.
Despite this setback, I set about applying for permissions and made my plans for the descent. The peace park project had received a six-month extension, so I figured that it would still be worthwhile to head into the forest to interview the communities that border the park. I was also desperate to experience the Upper Guinean forest belt first hand; with 70 per cent of its area already missing and more being logged every day, this felt as though it could be my last chance to do so.
The belt’s forests are home to a huge array of species. Of the 1,100 mammal species on the African continent, more than a quarter are found in the Upper Guinean forests, with more than 60 found nowhere else. The forests also support nearly 785 bird species, 510 freshwater fishes, 35 per cent of which are thought to be endemic, and about 9,000 vascular plant species, about 20 per cent of which are thought to be endemic.
ON THE WATER
With help from staff at the GRNP, I launched my packraft in an abandoned fishing hole in the remote far north of the forest. The Moro was alive with activity: dragonflies hunted insects on the wing, innumerable butterflies danced on the riverbanks, white egrets and herons stalked the shallows and large striped tigerfish hunted the slacks. The river provides fresh water, a food source and a home to countless creatures, but for me it was the perfect transport network, a natural break in the landscape that allowed a glimpse into this most complete of ecosystems.
I had been on the river for a week when I ran into the mine. Beyond a handful of Mende-speaking villagers, I had hardly seen a soul.
The abundance of cataracts and rocks had blocked villagers from using the river as a thoroughfare to the coast; instead, they opted for the numerous bush paths cut back towards potholed tracks running to the towns and left large parts of the forest virtually untouched. Hearing a diesel generator was a surprise; seeing people was a total shock.
I paddled up to the mine with my heart in my mouth and shouted, ‘Hello.’ No-one answered. They were talking in raised voices as more people poured from tarpaulin tents, 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 wore shoes. This was illegal activity on a huge scale and I was almost certainly an unwelcome intruder. This felt very dangerous.
It’s difficult to talk about Sierra Leone and Liberia without the subject of so-called ‘blood diamonds’ coming up. It’s a lazy stereotype, but bad reputations have a habit of sticking.
There are no more blood diamonds in Sierra Leone or Liberia. The practice of mining the region’s diamonds to finance the conflict in the former nation ended along with the civil war more than a decade ago.
However, the industry remains largely unmechanised, with 80 per cent controlled by 300,000 artisanal miners, most of whom mine by hand. The government receives little revenue – only about US$3.5million from an estimated US$100million industry. Smuggling and illegal activity are rife and, as I discovered, the industry remains largely unpoliced and unregulated.
I kept shouting greetings as I approached and eventually received a well-articulated, ‘Good morning.’ It was obvious from everyone’s body language that I wasn’t welcome, but I could do nothing; this confrontation was unavoidable.
I was hauled from the raft and taken to the top of a huge bank of mud. I decided to go for the direct route from the off. ‘So, have you found any diamonds?’ I asked jovially. ‘Yes,’ came the response from one miner, immediately followed by an emphatic ‘no’ from another.
Listening back to my recording of the encounter, I still find it incredible that they provided me with any answers at all. I asked a few more questions and a couple of the guys spoke up. ‘We are just prospecting, we dig and look for the gravel where the diamond lives,’ one said. ‘Then we wash the gravel through the shaker.’
Diamonds are typically formed about 160 kilometres below the Earth’s surface under intense pressure and heat. Those that are found close to the surface were brought there by extremely violent subterranean volcanic eruptions.
If you can control access to the ‘spout’ of the eruption, where the so-called volcanic pipe reaches the surface, you will control the diamonds. De Beers, the world’s largest diamond mining and trading corporation, was formed when a young Cecil Rhodes and Charles Rudd consolidated a series of small mining companies and bought up the claims of other smallholders in the Kimberley region of South Africa, thus creating a monopoly on diamond production from the Kimberley field.
At some point in the distant past, Sierra Leone had a volcanic eruption on the scale of that which took place in the Kimberley. This eruption probably produced an equivalent number of diamonds, but as the region experiences some of the heaviest rainy seasons in Africa, the precious stones were eventually washed away and spread across an area of about 20,000 square kilometres in the country’s southeast and east. Diamonds can now be found virtually anywhere across this region – beside roads, among housing foundations –but the most productive areas are in the drainage areas of large rivers, including the Moro.
As luck would have it, these miners turned out to be huge fans of BBC Radio and tuned in to ‘Focus on Africa’ on the World Service every night after work. After the boss had established that a ‘white from the parks authority would never travel alone’, I found myself something of a guest of honour, albeit an uninvited one. 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 as though I was presenting a Blue Peter special on illegal mining and not, in fact, a door-stepping adventurer way out of his depth in the middle of a remote forest.
What they had achieved in two months was staggering. The pit was big: 30 metres long and at least six metres deep, all dug by hand; water poured in constantly, ensuring work always took place in a thick puddle of mud. Everything they needed (fuel, generators, shelter, food, tools) had to be carried from the nearest town, five hours away through the forest.
The noise of the generator was deafening and the midday heat, with no overhead cover, was almost intolerable. At one side of the pit stood a metre-high pile of gravel, the sum total of two months of toil on less than US$1 a day, but it was enough to justify another month’s investment from the big boss in Kenema. Find a stone and it’s party time, find nothing and you at least leave with a few dollars, which is more than most of these lads could hope for otherwise.
Mining is one of the biggest threats to the Gola and to 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 treated me warmly during my hour with them, which I certainly didn’t feel I deserved. They even insisted on washing my feet as I climbed back into my raft.
Before I pushed off from the bank, I asked the boss what he would do if the peace park is ever established. ‘We will have to leave,’ he answered simply. ‘There is always somewhere else for us to try to dig, but they tell me there isn’t anywhere else like this forest.’
I continued my adventure until I contracted malaria at the very base of the peace park and was evacuated for treatment. Everywhere I went, I met people who spoke of the importance of establishing a meaningful peace park that’s respected by local people and strikes a balance between conservation and community development, but in the mud of that mine hides a precious stone that will remain a huge draw as long as consumers are willing to pay the Earth.
Will Millard was the winner of the 2013 Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Journey of a Lifetime Award, a £4,000 grant for an original and inspiring journey anywhere in the world. The winner receives radio and broadcast training from the BBC, and records their journey for a BBC Radio 4 documentary. Will’s documentary can be heard online at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fy30z. For further details, visit www.rgs.org/journeyofalifetime
This story was published in the May 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine