The discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1867 gave rise to the modern diamond industry and made South Africa the world’s leading diamond exporter. With new discoveries since then, however, other countries have surpassed South Africa in diamond production. The best estimates suggest that South Africa presently produces about 6 million carats of rough diamonds a year—not a small number, but much less than the 20 to 30 million carats produced yearly in countries such as Russia and Botswana.
Now, the small club of major diamond exporting countries may be about to anoint a new leader. In 2006, villagers in the Marange district of eastern Zimbabwe discovered an enormous deposit of diamonds that some are comparing to the 19th century discovery of diamonds in South Africa. According to an estimate by an advisor to Zimbabwe’s government, the Marange diamond fields could produce as much as 40 million carats a year—worth about $2 billion. Those production levels would catapult Zimbabwe into position as the world’s leading diamond exporter. Zimbabwe’s present rough diamond production – about one million carats a year – is far more modest.
All of this would not matter quite so much were it not for a disconcerting reality. The Marange diamond fields, in addition to being extremely valuable, are also the location of some of the worst diamond-related human rights abuses in recent years. In 2008, the Zimbabwean military moved in to “secure” the Marange diamond fields from small-scale diamond diggers. But instead of ensuring that Marange diamonds were mined in an ethical way, the military embarked on a campaign of violence. Killings, rape, torture, forced labor, and child labor were all used to subdue the local population and extract the diamond wealth for the benefit of the military and the political allies of President Robert Mugabe.
The Kimberley Process, the international scheme created to stop the trade in conflict diamonds, banned exports from the Marange diamond fields in November 2009. Regrettably, the Kimberley Process recently lifted the ban, even though the Zimbabwean military continues to smuggle stones and commit human rights abuses. An initial auction of Marange diamonds took place in August and another in mid-September. The Kimberley Process is now poised to allow Zimbabwe to make regular shipments of Marange diamonds.
What may soon happen, therefore, is an appalling scenario: the country with arguably the worst diamond-related human rights record may become the world’s leading diamond exporter. This is not necessarily a coincidence. The size and value of the Marange deposit explains a lot about what is happening in Zimbabwe. Human rights abuses have occurred partly because people in the Zimbabwean government, aware of the size of the Marange deposit, have been willing to commit those abuses, or overlook them, in a bid for wealth and power. And the Kimberley Process has not summoned the political will to prevent the export of diamonds that could be worth billions of dollars.
Going forward, the sheer value of the Marange diamond fields is what makes the situation so promising and yet so dangerous. Zimbabwe is recovering from an economic depression. The country’s entire GDP in 2009 was $4.4 billion. Even if Marange revenues are not as large as predicted — the $2 billion per year estimate could be highly inaccurate – diamond revenues could still provide a boost to the Zimbabwean government’s sagging finances and benefit Zimbabwe’s people. On the other hand, in a country as corrupt and unstable as Zimbabwe, significant diamond wealth could lead to human misery on an equally significant scale. We will continue to watch developments in Zimbabwe closely and to speak out for a diamond mining industry in Zimbabwe that benefits all of Zimbabwe’s people.