Canada – Deep in the Canadian wilds, about 300 kilometres from the nearest city as the crow flies, the world’s largest diamond mine outside of South Africa is being dug.
The Gahcho Kue mine is only accessible by air, except for a few weeks in the dead of winter when trucks may travel across an ice road on the edge of the Arctic Circle.
Its name is derived from a term for “big rabbit” in the local indigenous Chipewyan language.
It took Johannesburg-based De Beers and its Canadian partner Mountain Province Diamonds nearly 20 years and US$1bn to get the project off the ground.
Some 530 employees using massive trucks and mining equipment now work round the clock in shifts, digging three pits in the Earth’s crust that are visible from space to reveal the diamond-rich kimberlite formations underground.
Nearby an ore processing plant was set up, as well as a mechanical repair shop, and diesel storage tanks.
Workers are housed on-site in sparse quarters, but have access to a gym, a games room and other amenities.
“This mine would never ever (have) existed without the winter road,” De Beers official Rob Coolen commented.
He explained that temperatures plunge to -40 degrees Celsius (same in Fahrenheit) in winter, creating thick layers of ice on the many lakes in the remote region, making it possible for heavy trucks to drive across them. The one-meter thick layer of ice is capable of carrying loads weighing up to 55 tonnes.
The ice road starts in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, and extends 400 kilometres into the barren tundra, serving several mines along its path before ending at the Gahcho Kue mine.
More than 3 800 truckloads of mining equipment, supplies, building materials, diesel and crates of food crossed this way to Gahcho Kue over the past two winters, in preparation for the mine opening.
Without this lifeline, which is open only six to eight weeks each year, the mine would never have opened.
In order to access the kimberlite deposits, miners first had to drain part of Kennady Lake, which sits on top of the carrot-shaped deposits.
De Beers said it expects the mine to produce 54 million carats of rough diamonds by 2028.
Over the next decade and a half, the company expects to pour Can$5.7bn into the economy of the Northwest Territories, which derives more than half of its gross domestic product from mining activities.
Partnering with local indigenous communities, which have a say on the use of resources in their ancestral lands, has provided workers for the mine, as well as about Can$4m in royalties for area tribes, noted De Beers chief executive Bruce Cleaver.
Tlicho First Nation Grand chief Edward Erasmus explained that work at the mine has helped ease band members’s traditional reliance on hunting caribou for sustenance.
About 30-40 percent of the mine’s staff are aboriginal.
“We want jobs just like everybody else,” he told AFP.
“Our citizens are building homes, driving vehicles and they have jobs, and they are happy and that’s what we want for our citizens too, just like everybody else,” he said.
Mining royalties also fund social programs, and scholarships for local young people to attend major universities in the south of Canada.
Mining, however, is not without health and safety risks. Officials are also concerned about social ills that come with “fast money,” including drug and alcohol abuse.
Chief Eddy Sangris of the Yellowknife Dene First Nation described the recent death of a young man, ruled a suicide.
“He worked in another mine, he had a lot of money and he wasted it (on drugs and alcohol).”