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Diamond Mining Companies Can Be Forces for Good

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That sparkling rock on your finger -- there's a good chance it came from a mine in Botswana, which supplies 22 per cent of the world's diamonds.

Kgosi Kegapetswe is the chief of Letlhakane, a village in north-central Botswana that borders a huge mine that since 1969 was owned by an international diamond company.

For years, he felt like a stranger on his own land.

Access to the land was restricted, according to the chief, who told us that when he visited the off-limits property to discuss an issue like grazing rights for his community's livestock, he waited like a supplicant at the property line. When armed guards admitted him, he was marched to the meeting place and then marched back off again. He said there wasn't enough consultation with his community. He didn't even know the company sold the property in 2009 until the new owners showed up.

But when Canadian mining company Lucara Diamond took possession, everything changed.

We have read literally hundreds of news stories about global mining operations abusing the environment and human rights. Canada is home to an estimated 75 per cent of the world's international mining companies, and every time these companies trample rights or the environment, respect for our country takes another hit. In the past several months alone, there have been protests against Canadian-owned mines in Bolivia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Israel, Nicaragua, Peru, Romania and Slovakia.

But while touring Botswana with Governor General David Johnston in May, we visited Lucara's Karowe diamond mine. For only the second time in the history of the mine, they brought out raw diamonds to show visitors. These small, dirty-looking, foggy white-ish pebbles were uncut diamonds worth more than two million dollars. As the diamonds were showcased, company officials boasted that they had created a different kind of mine -- one that respects local communities and wants them to benefit from the mine's riches.

It sounded too good to be true. When the corporate tour guides weren't near, we quietly pulled Kegapetswe aside and asked for the real scoop. Was all this true, or just corporate whitewash? He assured us it was real.

"It's not like the other mine that came before," he said."We are working together with the mine now and we are happy."

William Lamb, CEO of B.C.-based Lucara Diamond Corp, said that before Lucara ever broke ground, company representatives attended numerous community meetings in all five surrounding villages to introduce themselves, explain the company's plans for the property and solicit for input and concerns from the residents.

Kegapetswe told us the company negotiated fairly with local livestock herders whose grazing lands were affected by the mine, and paid relocation costs to those who wished to move.

When Lucara built access roads into the mine site, community members helped plan the routes so local farmers now also have better access between their farms and the villages.

An environmental plan for the mine was developed with input from the communities and Kegapetswe told us that issues and concerns are acted upon promptly. For example, when mining operations got underway in 2010, mine vehicles were generating vast clouds of choking dust along the dirt roads that passed by the farms. When he raised the issue, the mine immediately began spraying the roads daily with water dampen the dust, then followed up to ensure the community was satisfied.

Resource extraction businesses like mines reap the natural riches of a region. It's our belief, therefore, that these businesses have an obligation to share the wealth with the people who lived there long before they came, and to whom those natural riches rightly belong.

And it's not enough to simply say that a mine creates local jobs. Mines are not for life -- once the diamonds or gold are gone, so are the jobs. A mine that truly wants to benefit its host communities must create opportunities and change that will outlive the mine itself.

Lucara is helping create new long-term industry for the villages around its mine by investing in an abattoir, creating jobs and an accessible location for local farmers to have their livestock slaughtered and processed.

The company is supporting local entrepreneurs by guaranteeing start-up loans. Fifty-two entrepreneurial hopefuls have applied for loans and two have already been approved--a brick-making business, and a tent-rental and catering business.

Local women also benefit. With the Women's Empowerment Network, launched in 2011, women from each of the five villages are learning leadership skills, financial and business skills, and about important issues like women's health. Currently the group is fundraising to send one woman from each village to an international women's conference in Helsinki, Finland, next year.

As for Kegapetswe, he can walk onto the mine property whenever he wants -- no armed guards necessary.

Canadian resource businesses operating abroad are essentially ambassadors for our country. Their impact -- good or bad -- on their host communities affects how those communities think of Canada itself.

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Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.