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FREETOWN (Reuters) - Diamond mining in Sierra Leone, for years a symbol of the worst form of exploitation of Africa's natural resources, is following a global economic trend with miners turning to gold.
Gold prices have risen as investors look to shelter from crashing financial markets in its safe glow, while cash-strapped consumers are shunning diamonds, a shift being felt from London jewelry boutiques and Antwerp dealing rooms to Africa's mines.
"The impact of these changes is very serious," said Edward Sandy, Deputy Director at the Ministry of Mines. "Investors are turning their backs on diamonds. We have issued hardly any licenses for exporting diamonds this year."
What the country loses in revenue from diamonds, a cornerstone of its economy, it hopes to gain in gold.
"Already in 2009 we have issued 10 licenses for gold, which is a large increase on last year, and we expect to issue more. Gold mining has always been a small industry in Sierra Leone but hopefully now it will grow," he told Reuters this week.
Earlier this month London-listed Target Resources said it was cutting its losses and suspending diamond mining in Sierra Leone, but would start alluvial gold production along the Teye River, east of the capital Freetown. [nBNG412988]
Diamond prices have fallen 7 percent already this year according to PolishedPrices, an independent news and price list provider.
By contrast, spot bullion traded above $960 per ounce on Friday, up 10 percent from the start of 2009, and analysts expect it to rise to $1,000 per ounce in the near future.
"For years people have said 'there's gold in them there hills' but no-one's ever looked too hard," said an American businessman in Freetown.
"Gold prices are soaring, the equipment's not being used for diamonds any more, investors are looking for some place to put their money and there's a gold buzz," he said.
Still, not every diamond digger has been able to make the switch to gold. In regions where diamond miners are major employers, local economies are suffering as jobs are cut.
"We've laid off all of our day laborers. I used to employ 20 men. Overall employment is down by more than 80 percent," said Chief Shaka Sandi, chairman of the Sierra Leone Indigenous Miners' Movement.
"There are empty houses around the town now. Everyone has gone back to the villages to farm, but it's impossible to make a living from farming. There's no credit to enable us to grow enough to have a decent business," he said.
"Mining is a tough life but at least the salary helped people here to make a living."
During the former British colony's 1991-2002 civil war, diamonds mined there helped finance rebels who murdered and raped civilians, frequently hacking off lips, ears and limbs.
Since the war ended, resources firms have stepped up efforts to find and dig bauxite and titanium ore rutile, as well as gold and diamonds, in a country ranked bottom of the United Nations' Human Development Index.
Writing by Daniel Magnowski; Editing by James Jukwey