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De Beers and the Dirtier Facets of African Diamonds

 

By Owen English

 

The diamond industry has traditionally been dominated by De Beers, a company whose control and market share have lessened in recent years but is still the world's largest diamond mining company.

 

The sale of diamonds has been used to finance armed groups across Africa fuelling a series of wars in which over 4 million people have been killed and many more displaced, raped or brutalised. It is no surprise that diamonds produced in this way have earned the moniker of 'conflict' or 'blood' diamonds.

 

Historically, De Beers, with its massive control over the world's diamond distribution channels, did little or nothing to stop the flow of these blood diamonds. It was only in recent years with increasing awareness and pressure threatening to taint diamonds' image that diamond-producing countries came up with a scheme, the Kimberly Process, meant to stop conflict diamonds getting into the supply chain.

 

Unfortunately, the scheme is far from watertight; it does not require independent inspection and, according to Amnesty International, is "open to abuse". It is worth noting that the Kimberly Process definition of a conflict diamond is one which is used to finance 'rebel groups', neatly ignoring abuses by governments in diamond mining.

 

Meanwhile the diamond industry is able to portray itself as squeaky-clean and brush the problem under the carpet.

 

Workers in the diamond industry are also exploited. Most of the world's diamonds are cut and polished in India often by child workers in terrible conditions for low pay ($15 - $20 a week, if they're lucky). Child workers sometimes even work in bondage, almost as slaves, to pay off debts. Over half of these child cutters are suffering from preventable work-related ailments such as kidney dysfunction, lung disease, stomach problems, wheezing, pains in their joints and eyesores.

 

Many African diamond miners live in company-owned homes and compounds, and there are reports of companies, De Beers in particular, making use of this to exert control over their workers' personal lives.

    

 

Botswanian miners protest against De Beers (above). Main picture: Rapper Lil Kim sports green diamonds (Courtesy: www.mtv.com)

 

For example, by refusing to let black workers live with their families (a restriction not applied to white and coloured employees in a mine where "the administration is all white"). This suggests that apartheid is still alive and well in Africa. In another case, miners striking in Botswana (after complaining of large gaps between managers' wages and their own) were not only sacked but forcibly evicted from their company-owned homes.

 

The diamond industry also leads to environmental ruin. In areas where diamonds have been spread over a large area by rivers and erosion, groups of garimpeiros (freelance miners) dig the earth, washing and sifting for diamonds sometimes for months at a time without success. Some have even been buried alive while digging.


Non-artisanal diamond mining tends to use open-pit mining techniques, which disturb huge areas of land and their eco-systems, causing pollution of groundwater, erosion and other problems. These problems are particularly bad in countries where there is little or no environmental regulation. Mining and digging for diamonds has devastated huge areas of land in Sierra Leone and Angola, turning previously fertile farmland into crater-filled landscapes, providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and exposing the population to increased risk of malaria and water-borne diseases.

 

Survival International, the NGO that supports tribal people worldwide, have many case studies of indigenous lands seized for mining purposes. For example, in Botswana thousands of Central Kalahari Bushmen have been forcibly evicted from their communities in preparation for a planned diamond mine which could affect over 5000 square kilometres of land - an issue which has even led to several of De Beers' supermodel figureheads quitting in protest.

 

Then there's the soothing, manipulating voice of the media to wash over your worries. It was through De Beers' massive advertising and PR campaign in the 40s that the association between diamonds and romance became widespread (the “Diamonds are Forever” campaign). Having established monopoly control over the supply (and therefore price) of diamonds, De Beers sought to keep demand high by "altering social attitudes" - with remarkable success.

 

The case against De Beers

 

Where is this happening?

In the Kalahari desert, in the southern African country of Botswana.

 

The Kalahari has been inhabited by different groups of Bushmen hunter-gatherers since time immemorial. In the middle of Botswana lies the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a reserve created to protect the traditional territory of the Bushmen, and the game they depend on.

 

Who are they?

The Bushmen whose ancestral land is inside the reserve belong to three groups, each speaking their own language: the Gana, Gwi and Tsila. All have lived there for thousands of years.

During the last 1,500 years a fourth group, called the Bakgalagadi, have also settled there and inter-married with the others.

 

What is the problem?

The reserve lies in the middle of the richest diamond-producing area in the world. In the early 1980s, diamonds were discovered inside it. From 1985 onwards, Botswana ministers went into the reserve to tell the Bushmen living there that they would have to leave because of the diamond finds.

 

In three big campaigns, in 1997, 2002 and 2005, virtually all the Bushmen were forced out. They now live in camps outside the reserve.

 

How is De Beers involved?

De Beers operates all Botswana’s diamond mines and markets all its diamonds. It retains the biggest known diamond find in the reserve – at a Bushman community called Gope – under licence.

It operates in Botswana under a 50:50 joint venture with the Botswanan government called ‘Debswana’.

 

As well as owning half of Debswana, the Botswana government owns 15% of De Beers as a whole. Senior government figures are on the Debswana board. Botswana’s President describes his government and De Beers as ‘Siamese twins’.

 

What has De Beers said?

Debswana’s managing director at the time of the 2002 eviction backed the forced removals, saying, ‘The government was justified in removing the Basarwa (Bushmen)… It is sensible of government to take such action.’ De Beers falsely alleges that there were no Bushmen living at Gope before it started its test mine. It is in fact part of the Bushmen’s ancestral territory.

 

The company opposes the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights in Africa (although it has a different position in North America, where indigenous organisations are more powerful).

It has said that it hopes to mine in the reserve in the future. The Botswana government has also said it will not hesitate to open mines inside the reserve.

 

 

With thanks to Corporatewatch.org and boycottdebeers.com


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