Surge in demand and looming shortage for the stones is reshaping mining in one of the world’s poorest countries
LETSENG-LA-TERAE, Lesotho—A looming global diamond shortage is driving a small band of adventurous miners to brave bone-chilling winds at the world’s highest mines to extract stones that are worth as much as 20 times the global average.
The excavation is extremely challenging. The diamond-bearing kimberlite formations in the 11,000-foot high Maluti mountains had for years been largely untouched by mining companies, due to the difficulty and cost involved in extracting the stones from such heights.
The mines—which see temperatures dip 30 degrees below zero with wind chill—lie through landlocked and impoverished Lesotho’s steep, narrow, winding mountain passes and past one of southern Africa’s two ski resorts. The roads are often blocked by herdsmen on horseback wrapped in colorful, traditional blankets surrounded by hundreds of their shaggy sheep.
Recently, active mines in the area have been on the rise, with more mines slated to come online soon, as strong demand for high-end diamonds encourages nimbler miners to brave the craggy area known as the Roof of Africa to dig up some of the earth’s most valuable stones.
The Letseng mine, majority-owned by U.K.-based Gem Diamonds, has a tiny yield, but produces diamonds whose price—roughly $2,000 a carat on average based on 2015 and 2016 prices—far surpassing the global average of just over $100 a carat. Since Gem took over the mine in 2006, Letseng has produced four of the 20 largest diamonds ever found.
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