In the Democratic Republic of Congo, artisanal mining is a remnant of the once-booming gem industry.
TEMBO, Democratic Republic of Congo—As the truncated rat cooks in the fire, its body slowly roasting over the smoldering logs, 30-odd diggers stand around in the sweltering midday sun. Some break boulders at the bottom of a 50-foot pit in a dry riverbed, trying to access the gravel beneath, which they hope holds hidden wealth. Others watch, talk or take shelter from the heat.
A mile upstream, the divers try their luck. In ragged, re-stitched wetsuits, young men resurface every few minutes, heaving sacks of earth from the riverbed into the hands of helpers on a patchwork flotilla of multicolored dinghies. The boats are as close to the Angolan side of the river as can be, tethered to Congo by 50-foot ropes and pale hosepipes that pump air to the divers.
These miners are the remnants of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s diamond industry, which once provided a quarter of the world’s supply. In 2015, Congo exported 17.1 million carats of the gems, down from 33 million carats 10 years earlier. Across the country, as global diamond prices have dropped and other commodities like copper, cobalt, coltan, and gold have become more profitable, diamonds have been left to the diggers, divers, and dealers in forgotten corners of Congo trying to strike it rich, or at least eke out a living, in remote mines.
This mine is at the edge of the world as far as the local population is concerned. No car or truck has reached the village of Mawangu, perched on a bluff 500 feet above the diamond pits, since 2012.
A single airfreight company organizes a 90-minute flight from Congo’s chaotic capital, Kinshasa, a few times a month to Tembo, 30 miles further downstream on the River Kwango. From there, an hour on a motorbike along a narrow, sandy, single-track road, past a police roadblock, through dense forest and open savannah, and across a creaking, crumbling bridge, brings you to Mawangu. Everything comes in and out on two wheels or two feet.
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