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Interview with Mark Freudenberger, Artisanal Diamond Expert

Mark FreudenbergerI had the privilege recently to talk with Mark Freudenberger, who heads an innovative project called Property Rights and Artisanal Diamond Development (PRADD) II. The idea of PRADD II is to reduce conflict, promote development, and protect the environment by granting secure property rights to artisanal diamond miners—the estimated one million individuals in Africa, most of them impoverished, who dig for diamonds. PRADD II, the extension of a previous phase of PRADD, is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department as well as the European Union (EU).

Mark has more than 30 years of experience in international development and is one of the world’s foremost experts on the issues facing artisanal mining communities. He spoke with me from Burlington, Vermont, where he is based, on a snowy day in March. Our conversation touched on Mark’s background, the war in the Central African Republic, and many other topics. Here’s an edited transcript of that interview:


Q: Let’s start off by talking about your personal story. I know that you lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a young boy.

A: Yes, so I grew up as a kid in southern Congo from 1957 through 1966. We were there because my parents were agricultural missionaries. My father established the first agricultural training institute in Congo to train farmers in new agricultural practices. And this was in the Shaba [now Katanga] province of Congo, which was actually near to the diamond producing areas of Congo.

And I still remember as a kid, the villagers would come in with diamonds that they wanted to sell. And we would scratch glass windows to see if they were really diamonds or not. And of course we never bought diamonds. But they were certainly very much in our minds as children.

I’ve spent my whole career and basically my whole life working on international and rural development issues in Africa. Once you grow up and work in Africa for an extended time, it never leaves you. It’s like a virus, the African bug.


Mark visiting a home in Bong County, Liberia


Q: Environmental concerns are very important to you. For many years, you worked at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C. Later you worked for eleven years in Madagascar managing a USAID conservation program. When it comes to artisanal mining, what takes priority: protecting the environment or reducing poverty?

A: I think it’s a balancing act. Whenever you’re in an area where artisanal mining is unfolding you see very quickly the enormous impact of artisanal mining on the physical environment and the resulting moonscapes often created. But on the other hand, you also see the tremendous costs of diamond, gold, and sapphire mining, for instance, on the people who do the hard work of removing the minerals from the earth.

And those who are at the bottom of the pyramid face very, very difficult working conditions. They’re in a very precarious state. Often times they’re trapped in debt by masters who provide the credit, the food, and the tools to do the mining. And they’re often very heavily exploited when selling precious metals and minerals at very, very low prices.


Q: This memory you have as a child of villagers selling diamonds—it seems like sort of a happy memory. When did you first realize that something was wrong, that this was potentially a situation that was exploiting the miners?

A: It’s interesting. Africans often say that there’s sorcery and danger around diamonds. That if you have a diamond it can bring you bad luck. So as a child, I remember quite clearly the hesitation of my parents to do anything with diamonds because the controls on diamond exports were so, so tough and it was dangerous to do anything illegal. So even through the eyes of a child I had trepidations, because diamonds were something not viewed as necessarily good; that there was something negative about them. And so I was cautious.

Later in my career I did participatory research on artisanal gold mining in Guinea and then on artisanal diamond mining in the Central African Republic. Through that fieldwork I began to see the nuance of issues around diamonds and gold. What I’ve come to really appreciate over the years is that artisanal mining is a source of major employment for young people especially, who often times have no other opportunities for earning income. And even though the work is backbreaking, even though it’s a speculative, gambling-type sector, it can and does generate many benefits for the diamond and gold miners themselves, for the shopkeepers who sell them food and tools and basic necessities, and for the traders who buy and sell diamonds into the international economy and who make good profits but themselves also  invest in other segments of the economy. These traders too have to meet family obligations and share their wealth in the African tradition.

So this is where I’m captivated by the focus, I think, Brilliant Earth has, and that is: how can the production of precious metals and precious and semi-precious stones be a motor for economic development in these countries and indeed environmental restoration after the area has been mined out? So that’s where I go both ways.


Q: PRADD II, the project you currently lead (let’s just call it “PRADD”) stands for Property Rights and Artisanal Diamond Development. Could you say more about PRADD?

A: I think the best way to characterize PRADD is to compare it to the way that gold mining started in the Wild West of California. When the gold rush started in California, thousands of people rushed out West and invaded the gold producing areas. And in those gold-producing areas, there was a tremendous amount of conflict as people tried to claim the land on which to do the mining. And if you read John Steinbeck and other novelists of that time, they talk about the conflicts around laying claim to the land. And very interestingly, when the California gold rush in the ’40s to ’60s started, government eventually played an important role in helping to clarify who had the rights to mine in particular areas. And so the state played a very key role in clarifying where individual miners could mine.

That’s the same thing, basically, that’s happening with PRADD. PRADD works with with local communities and government to clarify who has access to what spaces for mining and to facilitate the issuance of government recognized certificates so that people have the sense of security that if they have a claim they can mine it and take the benefits from the land. And then hopefully PRADD and its partners in government and the private sector can create incentives for people to restore the mined-out land.


Mark on Kiwayu Island in Kenya where he was studying land tenure issues.


Q: I’d like to get your take on the terrible conflict going on right now in the Central African Republic. The war has displaced up to a million people and cost thousands of lives. PRADD began in the Central African Republic in 2007 but had to leave when the conflict escalated in 2013.(Now PRADD is based primarily in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea.) How do you think about what’s happening in the Central African Republic? Are your colleagues there OK?

A: The Central African Republic crisis is a very endemic situation where it has been in a tug of war for decades over the control and extraction of lumber, of diamonds, and of other natural wealth from that country. So what we see now is unfortunately an extension of a very sad and difficult history, one that goes back to the creation of the country in the 1960s. So the implosion of the Central African Republic is not a new phenomenon. It’s happened before. But this is much, much worse and the costs are much higher on the people.

We worked in areas where artisanal diamond production was very high. And it was always very clear that various interests were trying to control the diamonds coming out of the Central African Republic. When we were in the field and had a country office we were very, very well aware of when rebel forces started to advance. We had warnings. We were able to close down our project. Unfortunately we had to lay off staff. Our Chief of Party had to leave quite quickly but in an organized way. And our staff members are still safe to the best of our knowledge, but of course out of work and in very difficult, precarious financial situations.

One of the interesting things that did occur is that when the rebel forces moved into the areas where PRADD was working, rebel forces who were trying to capture the diamond resources and force people to produce diamonds for them, local communities tried to resist quite forcefully the incursion. And they resisted quite effectively. What the latest situation is, I don’t know. But basically we’ve gone back to square one.


Q: I’ve also heard the conflict characterized as a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. What do you think about that explanation for the war?

A: I think the religious arguments mask a deeper issue of who controls the assets and the diamonds, the wood, and the machinery of government that tries to tax these resources. And so I think it’s one of these sad situations where religion and ethnicity are used by politicians to enflame people. But underneath it’s a struggle over control of these rich mineral and natural resources of the country.

What always impressed me about the Central African Republic is that people were very tolerant of each other, tolerant of ethnic differences, tolerant of religious differences. And it’s not the way of people who are intermarried, who work together, to have these types of brutal responses. But I think that when vicious cycles of violence start unfolding, these issues of religion and ethnicity come up. Probably the other element is pure and outright banditry. When social cohesion breaks down, it opens up the door for widespread banditry, looting and immediate profit taking.


Q: Do you think that any of what you’ve put in place in the Central African Republic could still be there whenever things return to normal?

A: What one hopes is that the people we’ve worked with in government will still be there. But that’s not clear. Certainly we hope that the village leaders in these areas where we’ve worked will still be there and that they haven’t been massacred or moved out. But to restart and return to normal is very difficult in a post-conflict situation. A country can be destroyed in a few weeks. But to rebuild a country and rebuild institutional systems can take years.


Q: The Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme, has banned the export of diamonds from the Central African Republic. What will that ban will able to do? How effective can that be?

A: I think the Kimberley Process has no other option but to ban formally the purchase of diamonds coming out of the Central African Republic. I think the reality though is that the borders are so fluid.  The illegal transport of diamonds and gold out of the country is quite easy. For this reason, it is difficult for the KP to enforce restrictions. That said, the KP ban on exports of diamonds is a powerful statement. In the future the government of the Central African Republic will have to reestablish the internal chain of custody in order for diamonds to be exported legally, while also collect taxes on exported diamonds for economic development.


Mark with friends and colleagues on Kiwayu Island in Kenya


Q: PRADD is doing a lot of fine work in diamond mining communities. But what do you see as the role of jewelry consumers in bringing about a transformation in artisanal diamond mining? What should they be doing?

A: I think, for a consumer, when a diamond is purchased they should ask as a minimum: is this a conflict free diamond? We know, and we think you at Brilliant Earth know even better, that when the consumer asks this question it puts the diamond retailers in a bit of a bind. And retailers need to respond to that question.

I think the next step is whether the consumer can go further by asking: was this diamond mined without the use of child labor?  And the even harder question: has the diamond been mined in an environmentally more benign way?  These questions by consumers place pressure on all actors involved in the diamond mining sector.  And that’s a positive step. So, I hope that the consumer will continue to say when buying a beautiful diamond, “I would like to have a clean diamond. I would like to have a diamond that’s been mined in an ethically sound fashion.”


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