Inside The World of Diamonds

Learning at 50 Below Zero: Education in the Arctic

We’re championing sustainability and helping enable education in some of the coldest, most remote communities on earth.

Just outside of the Arctic Circle, in the vast Northwest Territories of Canada, remote communities make a life in extreme climatic conditions. Icey fog, long dark days and bitter wind chill can make winters particularly challenging. In late December, Yellowknife, the territorial capital and home to about 20,000 people, saw less than five hours of daylight, and temperatures across the region regularly drop to −35 °C (-31°F) and colder – sometimes plunging below -50°C (-58°F).    

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For the children that live in the smaller communities, the remoteness and the harsh physical conditions can make accessing education difficult. Limited learning resources, along with social impact analysis, is evidence of the need to help address the low literacy rates in the region. And just like most of us, these communities were directly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many becoming even more isolated.

De Beers Group has long recognized these gaps and has focused considerable effort to provide literacy support to youth living in the isolated communities around Great Slave Lake, where they recover diamonds.

“To give you some context, some communities have populations of 250. You either have to fly there by aircraft; or some, in winter, construct winter roads across the frozen lakes and you can drive to get to them,” says Kelly Brenton, social performance manager for the NWT. “There aren’t any libraries in these communities, so most children didn’t have access to reading materials.”

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The Flying Bookstore

De Beers Group’s Books in Homes program started in 2003, to provide books free of charge to children from kindergarten age through high school, to help them build home libraries and encourage reading at home, with both parents and younger siblings. So far, the program has donated more than 60,000 books.

“It is pretty amazing. We charter a plane with volunteers from the business and fly into the communities. We offload the books onto tables in the gymnasium or the community centre,” Brenton says. “By grade level the students come in and pick three books to take home. They get an hour of ‘shopping’ – and they don’t have stores here apart from groceries in these communities.”

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Books left over are donated to the school to create mini libraries, and alongside gifting, the team often also play a video. “This could be about our mine site – what it looks like and how we discover diamonds,” she says. “And we show them pictures of diamonds and our colleagues. We usually pick individuals from their town or community who work there – sometimes they also come along to talk about their job and help get the children excited about mining.”

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The additional challenges during Covid-19 have meant introducing new safety protocols, but the situation has also resulted in De Beers offering other resources to families at home. “We realized that not everybody in the community had access to the infrastructure that was required to participate in these online learning platforms,” Brenton says. “So we donated 300 computers so students of all ages could continue their education.”

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Activity kits have also been introduced at the book events to encourage children to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects and careers, including practical geology and physics activities based on magnetic fields, volcanos, mining and more. Beyond this program, older students have been invited to visit the mine, via a chartered plane to tour the site and learn about possible future careers.

Preserving Culture and History Through Written Word

Overall, the program aims to help to reframe education in the home, across generations. The choice of books in multiple languages also reflects this. Currently, there are 11 official languages recognised in the NWT, including English and French, alongside Indigenous languages, such as ​​Chipewyan and Tłı̨chǫ (pronounced klee-cho).

“What we are seeing is very few children continuing with their traditional languages, although the elders do,” Brenton says. “We encourage books in traditional languages because we don’t want these children to lose that element of their culture.”

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At the other end of the age spectrum, De Beers plans to work with older generations next year. Oral-based knowledge systems have been predominant in the area for millennia, as a means to pass on stories, learnings, ways of life and lived experience. “We’re planning to bring in some of the elders and have their stories recorded and translated into books,” she says. “Then these will become part of the program – so the history and identity of these communities doesn’t get lost.”

Helping Kids to be Kids in Yakutia

Over in Russia, diamond mining company ALROSA is funding a number of programs to create better educational opportunities for thousands of children in remote corners of subarctic Siberia – including building new schools, and providing equipment for extracurricular activities and computer equipment and tablets for long-distance learning.      

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ALROSA supports children and families throughout Yakutia from the earliest stages of education, by providing schooling to more than 4,000 students in 30 kindergartens throughout the region. They’ve also just allocated funding for a new activity center in Mirny that will accommodate over 40 different activities spanning from robotics and design to folklore and choreography.

The company also works with children of all ages here to identify and nurture passion and talent – especially where they may not have had the chance to experience certain activities before. This has included providing new equipment for arts and music schools, alongside funding the expansion of a sports boarding school in Churapcha Village.

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Yakutia is Russia’s largest region. Permafrost and sharply continental climate prevail here, and the thermometer reads below zero degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) for at least 6 months of the year. 

Its capital, Yakutsk, is six time zones away from Moscow, and is largely cut-off, bar an expensive trip by air for 5 hours, a 1000-miles boat ride when the Lena river thaws, or via the gravel Kolyma “road of bones” Highway across a frozen, barren landscape. Here, in the coldest city in the world – where temperatures can reach a piercing -64.4C (-83°F) – ALROSA has also recently rebuilt the Yakut Chess and Checkers Center.

“Chess contributes to the development of imagination, attention span and character; and teaches you to think logically and make your own decisions,” says Aleksey Burnashev, director of the Chess and Checkers Center. “Even if the child does not become a professional chess player, this invaluable experience will be helpful and useful in any other sphere.” 

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Addressing needs on a one-to-one level here – such as encouraging small changes in the everyday reading habits of children or offering them the chance to try new activities – could have a huge impact on these communities, at what might feel like the edges of the earth.