Zimbabwe Diamonds – a resource curse and story of greed, corruption and tragic failure of leadership
by Peter Lowenstein
This is the personal account of a retired geologist who has watched with consternation and dismay the ruthless and unsystematic exploitation of a unique and one of the richest diamond resources on Earth. I refer to the notorious Marange (Chiadzwa) diamond deposits, the significance of which was first recognised in June 2006 by a small entrepreneurial exploration company called Africa Consolidated Resources (ACR) and has since then frequently made news headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Now just how did I find myself in a position to be able observe the bizarre and tragic unfolding of events that have taken place during the past 8 years. Let’s go back to 1957-64 when I was a quiet and unassuming schoolboy with a passion for natural sciences who attended Moseley Grammar School. In those days geology was not on the school curriculum but pupils were encouraged to expand their interests in science and technology by participating in the activities of clubs and societies some of which I was either a member or helped to run. At that time the school was very fortunate in having a progressive and enlightened headmaster, Mr D.B. Gaskin, who broke with the longstanding grammar school tradition of only recognising and rewarding prowess exhibited on the sports field and allowed the position of Deputy Prefect to be awarded to boys who had distinguished themselves in other ways. As a result of being a voluntary lab assistant, stage electrician, and having curated a small collection of rocks and minerals which was housed in a small dusty museum on the third floor of the school tower, I was one of the first to be promoted to serve as a Deputy Prefect. As collecting minerals and fossils had long been a passion, since being given a beautiful water clear crystal of quartz by an aunt in Germany, I had acquired considerable knowledge of geology which was regarded as sufficient by the science teachers to allow me to sit for an “O” level” exam even though I had not received any formal tuition. This was a gamble which paid off as I received distinction which encouraged me to study geology at university and then make it a career (see “Readers’ Letters” in the Autumn 2014 issue of this magazine).
Fast forward now to 1990 when I was seconded as Chief Economic Geologist to the Geological Survey of Zimbabwe (GSZ) by the United Kingdom Overseas Development Administration (ODA). At that time GSZ was still functional and one of the best in any third-world country. Zimbabwe was experiencing a boom in mineral exploration with more than a hundred Exclusive Prospecting Orders (EPO’s) held by Mining Companies and many new ones being granted in particular for diamonds. Tantalising traces of this and other kimberlitic minerals had long been known to occur in Zimbabwe but until then no significant deposits had been found. In 1991 her Majesty The Queen attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Harare and I was privileged as a UK Technical Co-Operation Expert (TCE) to be invited to a reception held to mark the occasion and was very fortunate to be approached by Her Majesty and asked what I was doing in Zimbabwe. On explaining my role in monitoring mining company exploration activities for the Government I was asked what they were looking for. I replied gold and diamonds to which the first question was “Have they found any gold?”. I then explained that gold exploration had been very successful and that Zimbabwe was in 1991 the fifth largest producer in the world. The second question was “Have they found any diamonds?” to which my reply was not yet but because Zimbabwe was surrounded by other countries in which diamond deposits had been found there was no geological reason why they should not also occur here. On hearing this Her Majesty replied “Well I do hope you are successful – good luck”. A very encouraging response to a prophetic prediction the outcome of which no-one could then have imagined.
In the decade that followed my departure from GSZ in 1994 and attempts to set up a private geological consultancy in 1995, two negative events occurred which affected not only the consultancy but the country as a whole. The first in 1997 was payment of huge unbudgeted gratuities to disenchanted war veterans which set in motion serious economic decline, devaluations of the local currency (Z$) and printing of money which by 2008 resulted in hyperinflation which exceeded that of the Weimar Republic in Germany which had been experienced by my grandparents and consumed their life’s savings. The second was the start of the racially motivated land invasions in 2000 which since then have resulted in the confiscation of land from nearly all of the white farmers with collapse of almost the entire agricultural sector and in consequence most of the supporting infrastructure and industries. As a result of the land invasions and associated violence it became very difficult not only for individual consultants such as myself to carry out fieldwork but also for mining companies to continue systematic exploration. Even those which had the finances and courage to continue came up against insurmountable hurdles including the inability of the Ministry of Mines to maintain the EPO system, impartially issue new licences and fairly monitor their activities.
As the political and economic situation deteriorated everything else began to collapse including utilities and essential services and with little funding available to Government Departments including GSZ – these too became dysfunctional. By 2005 very little exploration was being carried out with just a few veterans such as Kimberlitic Searches (De Beers Zimbabwe Prospecting) still exploring for diamonds. Interestingly Kimberlitic Searches still held a Diamond EPO at Marange but as the target of their exploration was gem diamonds in kimberlite the significance of the low quality “alluvial” diamonds (boart) they had located in the area was overlooked. In the abandonment report submitted in July 2006, De Beers concluded that the exceptionally poor quality of the diamonds together with limited extent of conglomerates makes this occurrence of no interest to them. ACR which did recognise the potential of the deposit immediately pegged and was granted mining claims at Marange-Chiadzwa and commenced detailed sampling over portions of interest. When it became evident that very high grades of alluvial diamonds were present, the claims were seized by the Government and a huge numbers of artisanal miners were permitted to dig in the area as free labour to recover huge quantities of stones to sell to a rapidly expanding and “connected” local black market at prices well below their true value.
For the first few months from July to October 2006 nothing was published until an article entitled “Diamond Rush” appeared in the 6-12 October issue of “The Manica Post” (a provincial government controlled newspaper). An uncanny precursor to this took place the previous week at my home in the Bvumba Mountains where I experienced a once in a lifetime opportunity to sight and identify a real diamond from a new location shown to me by two local prospectors who claimed it had been found in the Sabi River (from which diamonds had never previously been recorded). It was an unusual small, dark, opaque, half-centimeter, slightly rounded and poorly faceted crystal not immediately recognisable as a diamond but hard enough to scratch any other mineral. On confirming that it was a diamond the prospectors eventually admitted that it had come not from the Sabi River but from newly found deposits at Marange. So when the newspaper article on the rush appeared it was decided to go to the area to see for myself what was happening.
This visit, on Friday 13 October 2006, was a unique experience – large portions of the Marange area had already been riddled with pits dug by hundreds of miners making it resemble the battlefields of the Somme. Touts trying to sell diamonds loitered along the approach roads to the Marange/Chiadzwa trade centre. The ACR claims had already been cordoned off by the Police (ZRP) and the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) who were camped at the entrance and nobody besides artisinal miners was being allowed in. Even though I presented my credentials as former Chief Economic Geologist at ZGS access was denied and I was told that this would only be granted if a letter was obtained from the Minister for Mines. The atmosphere was tense and I got the impression that my presence was not wanted. I was treated with suspicion and an attempt was made by an agent provocateur posing as a panner to see if I was an illegal buyer. I was introduced to a young lady who produced a magnificent 20 carat octahedral transparent diamond crystal about 2 centimeters in diameter and asked how much I thought it was worth. Fortunately not having seen anything like it before I could not even guess which is just as well as the lady’s well manicured fingernails betrayed that she was not a panner but possibly a CIO operative. When I asked if I could photograph the stone, permission was refused and I was told to return my camera to my car. When I asked if I could observe any of the digging going on nearby, access was denied. After some persuasion I was eventually allowed to watch two panners digging in a pit immediately adjacent to the CIO tent and was amazed to see them picking small stones from the dry pit wall and putting them in their mouths. When they spat them out it was evident that they were diamonds. This was incredible to watch because, if the quantity of stones being picked by these two people in just a few minutes was extrapolated to the hundreds of panners working in the area, many tens of kilograms of diamonds must have been recovered every day. It was then that I realised that a truely world class deposit with enormous potential had been discovered and that this was just the beginning.
Sadly however this proved to be my first and last visit to Marange. Before being allowed to leave, I was told by both ZRP and CIO that I was persona non-grata and not to come back. On the way out a small crowd of curious local miners and black marketeers at the Marange trade centre made it clear that they not want to sell to whites and those whites were not wanted in the area. As the group included plain clothed police and CIO operatives (a face was recognised that was earlier seen at the camp), I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and to beat a hasty retreat. However an incident that will forever remain in my mind (for reasons which will become evident later) took place on the way home to Mutare. Alongside the dirt road back, a tout who was obviously looking to sell diamonds suddenly produced a large clear yellowish object a few centimetres in diameter and held it up towards the sun. It was so spectacular and unlike any diamond I had ever seen that I assumed it must be bottle glass. As the area was teeming with operatives and it could have been bait for a trap I drove on without taking a closer look.
The bizaare, tragic and unbelievable events that have befallen Marange since 2006 are well documental and in the public domain. These are beyond the scope of this personal letter but anyone interested should try “Googling” using combinations of the search terms Zimbabwe, Marange, diamonds, Africa Consolidated Resources (ACR), Center for Resource Development (CRD), Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), Global Witness, Kimberly Process (KP/KPCS), CNN and BBC. Little or no first hand information on what was going on could be gleaned by anyone not authorised to enter the area which was progressively fenced off, securitised and then militarised to maintain secrecy and restrict access. Even Google Earth satellite images of the area were (by accident or design) not updated for several years since the coverage in 2007 which just shows that a fence had been erected around the area occupied by the original ACR Claims. All operations since then have been shrouded in secrecy. Even ZGS has been refused permission to carry out any geological investigations. A few low quality “alluviual” stones obtained from the local black market found their way to scientists overseas but these just provided tantalising evidence that the deposits are very unusual and stirred controversy as to whether the characteristic rounding is due to the alluvial processes which deposited them in the parent conglomerates (2000 million years ago), or, as some like myself suspect, was caused by partial physical resorption of the crystals during their original formation in kimberlite pipes. The accompanying photograph is of one such crystal which apart from having rounded edges has an extremity which looks like it has been pasted on while in a plastic condition. This suggests that it must have formed under very unusual conditions as diamond is extremely hard and brittle and does not normally deform in this way.
The next 5 years following my visit to Marange proved to be a hiatus during which almost no published information on the diamonds could be obtained. Almost all illustrations that accompanied media reports could be traced to other sources. The only exception was a KP report which was published in 2008 to help detect smuggling and included photographs of typical Marange rough stones. This situation continued until February 2011 when the media reported that a fabulous fancy vivid yellow pear shaped diamond weighing 110 carats known as the “Cora Sundrop” and found in “Southern Africa” in 2010, had been loaned to the Natural History Museum (NHM) for 8 months by an American diamond cutting company called Cora International. It was only after this diamond was auctioned by Sotheby’s for a record breaking US$12 million in November 2011 and a flood of pictures and videos appeared, that my suspicion was raised that it could have come from Marange. The colour and size of the stone looked very similar to the one which had been held up in the air by the roadside tout in 2006. This prompted me to carry out some research to see if I could locate any evidence to connect the Sundrop with Marange. All attempts to obtain additonal information from either the Natural History Museum, Cora International or Sotheby’s yielded nothing in addition to what had appeared in the media. Incredibly the NHM had not obtained any more information on the stone before exhibiting it and had not carried out any checks on it while in possession. All requests to Cora International for more data including a picture of the rough stone from which it was cut were ignored. A further approach to the NHM to ask if it could try to obtain this from Cora just resulted in prevarication. Requests to Sotheby’s for the same information and the name of the buyer yielded nothing but a statement that it is their duty to fully respect and maintain client confidentiality!
This spurred me on carry out detailed internet searches to see if it was possible to locate other possible Maranage gems that had either been exhibited or appeared for sale since 2006. The results were alarming. Another noteable candidate, the “Steinmetz Sunrise” diamond was quickly located. This 100 carat gem quality diamond had been put on display for just two days for a “once in a lifetime glimpse” at the 80th Anniversary of the Gemmological Institute of America (GIA) Symposium in Carlsbad California on 28-29 May 2011. No location of origin was attributed to this stone which has many features typical of Marange diamonds including a characteristic greenish yellow colour and small dark inclusions. Media articles were then found which revealed that the owner of the diamond had previously been involved in an unsuccessful bid to form a partnership with one of the Zimbabwe companies mining diamonds at Marange!
More internet searches then located several web pages belonging to mineral specimen dealers which had pictures of what look like Marange diamonds. One in particular had images of the same 40 Carat rough stone taken under very different lighting conditions which was advertised as having come from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Ghana! These images, of what I have dubbed the “Zim-Zim” diamond, can be resized and superimposed to produce a perfect fit which suggests either carelessness or deliberate lack of transparency by the dealer. Many other photographs of Marange like stones have also been found on major web-trading sites such as “eBay” and “Alibaba” and others in countries which have local diamond cutting industries including India and Viet Nam.
What is most disturbing about all of this is the ease with which the Marange diamonds have been smuggled and illegally traded due to lack of measures which could have made this more difficult. Even the Gemmological Institute of America (GIA), which tests and assesses the quality and cut of a high proportion of the world’s gem diamonds, does not declare any location of origin on the resulting certificate. This means that this information is not available even for notable stones which then sell for fabulous prices on the basis of the certification issued. Worse still, the dealers and Auction Houses who sell these also do not either obtain or declare their location of origin. The transactions frequently take place between unnamed sellers and anonymous buyers which facilitates the disposal of what may be stolen or illegally acquired gemstones.
The effectiveness, veracity and impartiality of even the Kimberly Process (KP/KPCS), the parent organisation responsible for monitoring, supervising and certifying world diamond trade, has been called into question by many including those who helped set it up. An excellent account of this appears in the book “Blood on the Stone” by Ian Smillie.
As with many other diamond fields in developing countries in which smuggling and illicit trade has been rife, it is impossible to determine how much has been produced. The few available records of production from Marange are either inaccurate or incomplete. Diamonds are not even listed among the mineral commodities produced by Zimbabwe in the Annual Mineral Production figures, released by the Zimbabwe Chamber of Mines, despite many millions of carats having been mined, and estimates that the country may contain up to 25% of the total inferred global resource!
The tragedy of the situation is that the greed, corruption and tragic failure of leadership by some individuals, companies, organisations and politicians have been either deliberately or unwittingly facilitated as a result of the above to the detriment of the Nation. The Marange Deposit is now just a shadow of its former self. With no careful records of production and grades having been kept and no systematic exploration and geological investigations having been carried out, the mainly rich “alluvial” portions have been picked out leaving behind lower grade bedrock which is much harder to mine. The ruthless, greedy and haphazard exploitation, without retaining sufficient profit to finance the additional infrastructure required to make longer term mining viable, means that much of the resource could remain in the ground for a long time to come. As of now the country is run down and in serious economic difficulty with little prospect of recovery any time soon, in contrast to Botswana where efficient and transparent mining of diamonds has led to more equitable distribution of wealth and major development of the country. Instead of a blessing, Zimbabwe diamonds have turned out to be a curse.