Why Zimbabwe's New Diamonds Imperil Global Trade

New mines in Zimbabwe help keep the despotic Robert Mugabe in power and threaten to undermine global efforts to eliminate blood diamonds

  • Robin Hammond

    A miner scrapes through the dirt in the Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe

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    The Kimberley Process was meant to end all that. It takes its name from the South African diamond-rush town of the 1860s, where in 2000, governments, Global Witness and other civil-society groups met diamond-industry representatives to work out how to clean up the trade. Many in the industry, it turned out, understood the problem all too well. All natural-resource production in Africa — oil, timber, minerals — is dogged by scandals over how it pollutes the environment and promotes inequality, corruption and even war. But whereas most commodities possess an intrinsic value as a raw material, gems do not. A jeweler will tell you a diamond's price is based on the four C's: carat, clarity, color and cut. But as a commodity, diamonds' value lies in their association with beauty, prestige and marriage. If they are linked instead to crime, war or starving orphans, customers won't buy them.

    In 2003 the Kimberley participants unveiled a global certificate scheme to separate legitimate diamonds from so-called blood stones. To be certified, a diamond must come from a country with laws and institutions that enable it to verify a stone as conflict-free. To prevent blood diamonds from being mixed in with legitimate stones, Kimberley countries can trade only with fellow participants. In its seven years, the process has had successes. Today there are no diamond wars. Conflict stones are a negligible part of the diamond trade, down from 15% a decade ago. And Kimberley certifiers, sent out to monitor compliance by an executive rotated annually among member countries, have caught at least one attempt to thwart them: in 2006, they found Ghana was certifying as its own blood diamonds smuggled from Ivory Coast.

    But Kimberley's failures are also ever more apparent. Just 75 countries are members — and they don't include Mozambique. The verification process can be slow. A Kimberley team that visited Guinea-Conakry in August 2008 to investigate its 500% increase in diamond exports since 2006 took more than a year to produce a report, by which time the nation had had a coup. Ian Smillie, who helped found Kimberley and has two decades' work in diamond regulation, estimates that Congo, next year's Kimberley chair, does not know the origins of 40% of the diamonds it certifies.

    Some countries openly circumvent the process. Venezuela has filed no statistics on diamond output since 2005 and in 2008 suspended its Kimberley membership and, it claimed, production. Bizarrely, the Venezuelan government said these steps were designed to reinforce regulation. In reality, according to Global Witness, the country continues to mine and move stones, smuggling them to Brazil and Guyana for certification. So far, Kimberley's inspectors have been unable or unwilling to confront the Venezuelan authorities.

    The workings of the Kimberley Process are secret: meetings, reports and reviews are confidential. And the process has a narrow focus, defining blood diamonds as "rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments." By that definition, blood diamonds have indeed all but disappeared. But Kimberley says nothing about gems sold by criminals or repressive governments or those whose production involves human-rights abuses or poor working conditions — which are rife in the industry.

    Manna for Mugabe
    On Aug. 11, four private jets touched down at Harare airport and taxied to the side of the runway, pulling up at a red carpet leading to a large hangar. Several groups of men in suits — according to a TIME reporter present, they were Lebanese, Israelis, Indians, Russians and Americans — were escorted inside by Zimbabwean officials. One by one, the men were given a body search, then led into a large vault. Inside were 1.1 million carats in diamonds, according to the government. During the next five hours, the buyers bid a total of $56.4 million. Then they packed their diamonds into briefcases and flew out. The government was ecstatic. Zimbabwe's Mines Minister, Obert Mpofu, a Mugabe supporter, told TIME, "With all these buyers and our diamonds, what can stop me being happy?"

    But if the Zimbabwean government is happy, those trying to clean up diamonds are not. The Marange fields first became problematic in 2006-07 when word spread about the finds and 30,000 people descended on the area. In 2006, Mugabe's regime had already appropriated the two working mines on the Marange Seam, then operated by a London company, African Consolidated Resources. In late 2008 the police and army, using two attack helicopters, seized all the remaining undeveloped land from the freelance diamond diggers, killing 200 of them, according to a Mutare-based watchdog, the Center for Research and Development.

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