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Diamond Hunting In The Arctic

The pay is good. And much of the work is automated. But life at the isolated Gahcho Kué diamond mine, in northern Canada, isn't for the faint of heart.

A close-up of a rough diamond found in Gahcho Kue Diamond Mine, Canada
A close-up of a rough diamond found in Gahcho Kue Diamond Mine, Canada
Ludovic Hirtzmann

GAHCHO KUÉMINE — The old Jumbolino, a small, 1980s-model British plane, circles above the pack ice and its multitude of frozen lakes. Aboard, the 90 passengers, all of them miners, are waking up. "Welcome to Gahcho Kué," the purser chants in a hoarse voice.

Gahcho Kué means "place of the big rabbits' in the indigenous Chipewyan language. But for outsiders, the name is synonymous with diamonds. The Gahcho Kué mine, owned by the De Beers company, is located in Canada's Northwest Territories, about two-hour by plane from Edmonton, Alberta. It looks a bit like a lunar base, stranded on the tundra, endlessly flat and white.

After they land, the miners make their way onto a pair of school buses. The men are quiet. Later they arrive at the entrance of the camp, which is made of prefabricated huts arranged in parallel lines. A stern young man calls for silence. He wants to fill the miners in on what they missed during the two weeks they were away. He has both good and bad news: no diseases or serious incidents, but a few minor injuries. The miners go straight to their dormitories, ready to work.

Two weeks on, two weeks off

Nearly 300 employees live in Gahcho Kué, where they're cut off from the outside world. For the operational staff, the isolation lasts for two weeks and is followed by a two-week break. The managers work for four days and take a three-day break.

The staff rotates via plane, flying in and out of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories and home to the Yellowknife Indian tribe. The city, population 22,000, was once one of jumping off points for the Klondike Gold Rush, in the late 19th century. Since then, the diamond rush has replaced the gold fever.

As backwater as Yellowknife may seem, Gahcho Kué, 280 km north, is more isolated still. There is no road or train, so the mine has to be fully self-sufficient. The site includes a fire station, a clinic and a restaurant where the chef, Mark Plouffe, makes sure that the miners eat fruits, vegetables and meat. The person in charge is Allan Rodel. "Managing Gahcho Kué is like managing a small town," he says.

Not far from the base camp, a factory processes the diamonds. On the other side is a vast crater where, night and day, giant backhoes dig their monstrous teeth in the earth. The tundra's subsoil spits gemstones. Here miners don't dig the rocks: They are operators of heavy and sophisticated machines. Still, technology hasn't fully replaced men, and even though much of the work is automated, they still have to deal with the harsh reality of the frozen world around them. It's the beginning of spring and the thermometer shows -35 °C.

"Once, because of the wind, we had -53 °C," Rodel says.

There is no road or train, so the mine has to be fully self-sufficient.

Half of the miners come from the Northwest Territories and one in five is Amerindian. A dozen tribes live in the region, and 11 official languages are spoken. In addition to three Inuit languages, people speak Dogrib (also known as Tłı̨chǫ), Cree, and North Slavey or South Slavey.

All of a sudden, a roar is heard across the sky. Is it an explosion? False alarm. It's a group of miners heading back on a plane for a two-week break. Lee doesn't pay much attention to the rumble any more. The bus driver comes from the Tlicho tribe — the region's most powerful Native American tribe, once called Dogrib. "I have a good job," he says. Better than the one he had before, when he worked in the mines in Nunavut. "There, the companies didn't care about our safety," Lee explains.

"We try to hire Native Americans and workers from the region," says Rodel. The policy makes for good public relations. But it's also self-serving: Apart from the local populations, few get used to the very low temperatures. Even the majority of Canadians coming from the south, where it's "only" -20 °C, can't cope with this white desert.

10,000 carats a day

Giant trucks are bringing the ore to the factory. There, crushers divide the rocks from the gemstones. But where are the diamonds? The vast majority of the miners never get to see gemstones. That's the tragedy of diamond mines: There's too much money at stake.

Serge Benoit, a manager in the ore-processing section, leads us into the inner sanctum, towards the ice diamonds. Photographs, fingerprints and a dozen cameras: That's part of the many security measures that were implemented to avoid temptation.

The stones are set in ramekins, sorted by size, from 7 to more than 23 carats. At the end of a workday, 10,000 carats are waiting here, behind armored glass, before they are put into a safe. Production started last August. The vein should be exploitable for 12 years.

Diamonds may not be forever, but Canada's future as a producer is still quite promising given how recently diamond mining began here. The first mines date back to the early 1990s. There are three mines in the Northwest Territories, one in Ontario and another in Quebec. Right now Canada is the third leading producer, with 10% of the world's market share. The top producer is Russia (29%), followed by Botswana (21%).

De Beers and Russian Alrosa dominate the global market. In 1995, the Canadian mining company Mountain Province Diamonds (MPV) discovered the vein in Gahcho Kué. Two years later, De Beers concluded a deal with MPV, acquiring a 51% stake. Twenty years passed before the construction work begun. The companies had to reach economic and environmental agreements with the Amerindian tribes and with the government of the Northwest Territories.

De Beers and MPV stand to make a lot of money from Gahcho Kué. But it also cost a fortune to get the project going: about $1 billion. Wages here are much higher than in Africa and workers are well treated. Unions, though, are frowned upon, even though have a relatively strong presence in Canada overall.

"Pay attention and keep cool"

Because of its location, Gahcho Kué presents a costly logistical challenge. The mine is linked to Yellowknife by an ice road only a few weeks every year. So in December, the staff builds an ice road on the countless lakes of the region in order to lower the shipping costs of the 9 tons of food that are necessary every week. The trail starts from Yellowknife and goes through a part of the Great Slave Lake to connect three mines.

The vast majority of the miners never get to see gemstones. That's the tragedy of diamond mines: There's too much money at stake.

"The ice is about 1.5 meters thick," logistician Robert Smith calculates. Around 98% of Gahcho Kué"s annual shipments are dispatched by truck on this road, until April. The rest goes by plane. Should the truck drivers move away from the ice road, they could risk their lives.

"It's a very good job and very well paid. I earn $10,000 every month, and for those who have their own truck, it's even more," truck driver Kyle says. On this day, he is transporting 50,000 liters of fuel in his tanker.

"We drive in a convoy of six trucks. We have to pay attention and keep cool, because it's easy to get lost. Many guys can't handle it," he adds. Three days are needed to drive to the three mines, covering almost 1,000 kms. "We drive slowly, because of the road and the hostile environment."

Predators like wolves, foxes and bears sometimes roam around the camp. "If it's a black bear, you have to retaliate and fight. If it's a grizzly, you'd better play dead. And if it's a polar bear, you should pray," says Terry, who has been working as a journalist in Yellowknife for 40 years.

In the evening, the camp feels like a polar prison from which there's no escape. The survivors from the cold don't have the right to some schnapps to warm up. Drinking alcohol is forbidden in the area. Security staff is careful about that and even examines luggage, searching for bottles.

Instead, some choose to work out on a rowing machine in the gym. De Beers made sure that everything was designed to make the staff as comfortable as possible. In the adjacent room, workers can play darts or foosball.

The light of day is slowly fading away. It is replaced by the northern lights, a wondrous natural phenomenon that attracts tourists from across the globe. The workers hardly seem to notice. They're too tired to care.

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