For many people, diamonds have lost much of their sparkle in recent years. The knowledge that so-called blood or conflict diamonds have been used to finance some of Africa’s most murderous wars and civil conflicts has made it difficult to look at the gems as objects of beauty with which to decorate our bodies.
The appalling working conditions and human rights abuses associated with some diamond mining operations don’t make matters any easier either. But even in situations where diamonds are mined legally by internationally respected, supposedly law-abiding companies, the impact on local communities and the environment can be devastating. De Beers’ Namaqualand Mines on the West Coast of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province are a good example of this.
De Beers started mining diamonds in this area in 1927. Gem quality stones are found here in “alluvial” and “placer” deposits — former gravel beaches and stream channels where the diamonds were dropped by rivers that scoured them from kimberlite pipes located hundreds of kilometers inland and carried them towards the sea millennia ago.
By the end of the 20th century, De Beers had extracted some 31 million carats of diamonds from its Namaqualand Mines located along a 150 kilometer stretch of coastline by strip mining parts of the land to a depth of about 40 meters. With profitability falling and the downturn of the global economy, operations were suspended in 2010 and in May of this year De Beers announced the sale of the mines to a much smaller local diamond mining company called Trans Hex.
Clearly De Beers has made a lot of money during their more than 80 years of excavating diamonds here, but the legacy they have left for local communities is one of crushing poverty and a devastated landscape. In this short video clip from Green Renaissance, Dawid Markus, a community leader in the small town of Hondeklipbaai, outlines their struggles:
Geographically isolated, Hondeklipbaai has around 1,000 inhabitants and a crippling unemployment rate of 80%. In the past, many families relied very heavily on work at the mines, but nowadays there are precious few job opportunities of any kind left.
The community has lodged an official claim for the land on which the mines were established, which they consider to be their ancestral heritage. They’ve objected to the sale of the mines, saying there can be no question of transferring ownership when there is an existing dispute over whose land it is in the first place.
De Beers’ operations have left the land in an appalling condition. Mining activities have left an area the size of approximately 2,000 football fields disturbed and un-rehabilitated. Although this region is very arid, it forms part of the Succulent Karoo Biodiversity Hotspot, one of 42 areas that are internationally recognized for their rich variety in flora and fauna.
This is a very special and fragile habitat that is home to a large number of endemic plant species which occur nowhere else on the planet and 45 of which are threatened with extinction as a result of the mining. It is also the site of one of the world’s largest arid estuarine systems.
Under South African law, once a mine is closed down, companies are obliged to provide the financial and other resources to ensure that disturbed areas are returned to a state that is equivalent to or better than it was before the mining started. They are also required to contribute to the social security and development of the communities they leave behind once they close shop, ensuring that alternative land uses are found and employment opportunities are created.
Local inhabitants like Dawid Markus, together with labor unions and environmental organizations like Conservation South Africa, the Bench Marks Foundation and the Centre for Environmental Rights have raised grave concerns that De Beers is attempting to avoid these legal obligations by selling off the mines to Trans Hex. They question Trans Hex’s financial and technical capacity to fulfill these obligations and point out that Trans Hex has a very poor record when it comes to environmental rehabilitation of their existing mines in the area.
It’s imperative that De Beers, a hugely profitable international corporation, is held to account for the environmental damage it has wrought in this area and that they return it to a sustainable ecological condition as is their obligation by law.
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
Photo from: Stock.Xchng