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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We'll stay in West Africa and look now at the diamonds produced in Sierra Leone. They were once known as blood diamonds and helped fund vicious civil wars both Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia. Those wars are long over, and the diamonds have lost their stigma. But as Tamasin Ford reports from eastern Sierra Leone, life remains grim for the people who mine them.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

TAMASIN FORD, BYLINE: Men, women and children stand knee-deep in the fields on either side of the dusty potholed roads. Mounds of dug-up dirt dot the landscape around them. With stooped backs, their eyes are down, scanning the huge sieves in their hands, hoping to spot the unmistakable sparkling of a diamond in the muddy water.

And this is a diamond?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes, this is diamond.

FORD: And is this a good quality diamond?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: When you put it in the water, it will shine.

FORD: Oh, but for how much money?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hundred thousand leones.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...money, yeah.

FORD: That's around 20 U.S. dollars. For this diamond, the size of a grain of rice, depending on the carat and clarity, it could fetch anything from $2,000 at a jewelry store in the States. Koidu is the heartland of diamond mining in West Africa. Two of the world's biggest diamonds were found right here. But it's also home to some of the worst fighting on the continent. During the decade-long conflict that ended in 2002, rebel factions fought for control of the diamonds. Ten years on from the war, there is peace in Sierra Leone, but the scars are still acutely visible here in Koidu - no roads, electricity only for those who can afford generators, and little or no running water.

MOHAMED CHALLEY: It's not easy. It's difficult, because I have children. I have my wife. I don't have any money to give them.

FORD: Thirty-five-year-old Mohamed Challey gets paid a thousand leones every morning - about 25 cents - plus a meal a day. If he finds a diamond, he has to sell it to his boss, and then he gets half.

CHALLEY: We need more help, because things are very hard for us here.

FORD: What sort of help?

CHALLEY: Well, development, more jobs. No jobs. My father is here. My mother is here. I don't have any money to give them unless I do mining.

FORD: Despite its natural resources, Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. With a growing youth population and massive unemployment, the U.N. estimates two-thirds of the population live on less than $1.25 a day. For thousands of people like Mohamed, who have little education, digging and sifting through the dirt is their only way out of poverty. But with almost no regulation in the artisanal mining industry, people and diamonds are left open to exploitation. Lesley Nmboka is the national chairman of the Campaign for Just Mining.

LESLEY NMBOKA: You know, it's actually the people that have money that will normally pay pittance to the locals to do all these dirty jobs for them, to go tracing or looking for the diamonds. You can still see poverty bravely, you know, rearing its ugly head in these communities.

FORD: Progress is happening in Sierra Leone. There are new roads, electricity in the major cities. But the challenge of really transforming the country's natural resources into development for everyone still remains. For NPR News, I'm Tamasin Ford in Kono, eastern Sierra Leone.

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