It was in June 2006 that diamonds were first discovered by villagers in Marange, a rural area of Chiadzwa, 90km south-west of Mutare.
The first time Farai Chikumira* went to the Marange diamond fields was in June 2008, the day of the presidential run-off elections.
“I was visiting a relative and I wanted to discover what goes on there, since Marange was the talk of the day,” says 26-year-old Chikumira.
Tall, dark and sporting an untidy beard, he is dressed lightly for the morning chill that grips Gweru’s CBD, wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt and navy trousers. With him is Tatenda Mabuza* (24), a relative, who, Chikumira says, is the reason he is an hour late for the rendezvous, a fast-food outlet, which is still empty save for the few waiters cleaning the floors.
As an apology he pats Mabuza on the back, saying, “He’ll also tell you all that you need to know about Marange,” as we huddle around a brown table in a corner.
It was in June 2006 that diamonds were first discovered by villagers in Marange, a rural area of Chiadzwa, 90km south-west of Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe. Between 2006 and 2008 Mutare, the third-largest city in the country, became the hub of an illicit diamond trade for thousands of local and foreign diamond panners.
Stretching over 16 000ha of parched and hilly land, Chiadzwa had an influx of panners, known to locals as omakorokoza, descending on the 70ha Marange—the new El Dorado.
An Israeli-based diamond consultancy, Tacy Ltd, has estimated that the Marange diamond fields have the potential to supply a quarter of the world’s diamonds. One local diamond industry executive with intimate knowledge of the Marange fields recently told the Mail & Guardian that he estimates the value of diamonds there to be in excess of three billion carats.
It was De Beers, through its subsidiary Kimberlitic Searches Ltd, who held the exploration rights, the exclusive prospective order (EPO), over the Marange diamond fields since the early 1980s. But they released the rights in March 2006 after evaluating Marange’s largely alluvial diamond deposit as being unsuitable for its own portfolio.
Africa Consolidated Resources (ACR), a local mining company founded by black and white Zimbabweans in 2005 and listed on the London Stock Exchange (LSE), acquired the EPO from De Beers. But the government cancelled ACR’s mining rights just a few months later, citing “an error in issuing it”; it is widely understood that the company’s listing on the LSE—and its ties to Britain—were behind the government’s revoking of the licence.
Diamond rush: In this 2006 photo, villagers dig for diamonds in Marange after government encouraged “enterprising individuals” to mine. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, AP)
After cancelling ACR’s rights, the government encouraged “enterprising individuals” to mine for diamonds at Marange and to sell their finds to the state-run Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe (MMCZ), in what observers saw as an attempt by Zanu-PF to garner popular support during an economic meltdown, causing a free-for-all to descend on the fields.
This laid the foundation for an intricate network of smuggling and diamond dealing by what Human Rights Watch (HRW) has estimated to be some 15000 diamond panners in cahoots with security personnel. The cash-strapped MMCZ, unable to compete with the bustling parallel market that offered lucrative prices to the panners, relied on police assistance in Operation Chikorokoza Chapera (loosely translated as an end to illegal panning) in November 2006 to stop what the government had then begun to call “illegal” diamond panning in Marange.
‘We used to operate as a syndicate, a group of six to nine people, each time we made the trip to the diamond fields,” says Chikumira. These syndicates allowed for security and the delegation of duties, divvying up jobs as look-outs as well as digging for diamonds. Panners would have to make the last leg of their journey on foot, using the forest for protection to avoid the many police roadblocks; for Chikumira and Mabuza and their group, it was a 35km walk from rural Masvingo.
Diamond panners at Marange practised artisanal mining, which involved digging and sifting through mud, gravel and river-bank alluvial deposits, using bare hands, shovels, picks and sieves. Although a primitive method of mining, this subsistence form of diamond production is used in countries like Sierra Leone, where artisanal mining is the second-largest form of employment after farming, contributing more than 50% of GDP and export earnings.
The Diamond Development Initiative, an international organisation based in Canada and dedicated to improving the conditions of artisanal mining, estimates that artisanal miners produce between 10% and 15% of all diamonds that go into the jewellery shops of London, Tokyo, Paris and New York.
Nothing but the essentials
A trip to the diamond fields would normally last between two and four weeks. The group would carry nothing more than the essentials: mealie-meal to cook sadza (pap), biltong for relish, drinking water and five-litre Cairn tins to use for pots. Rudimentary digging equipment included picks, shovels and a metal rod sharpened at the end to chip away at rocks.
According to Mabuza, the metal rod was also often used to kill the vicious dogs sent in by police. “Many panners were afraid of those dogs more than they were of the police, because once the dogs were told to bite, it would just come after you. At times the police shot in the air to scare us off the field, but we didn’t really mind their guns and for most of us the sound of gunfire was like music, an encouragement to work even harder. But once you heard dogs barking, you would run.”
As immunity against the police raids, a syndicate enlisted one or two policemen to watch over them and advise when it was safe to go into the field. “The police had a timetable for conducting raids on the fields and as long as we kept the police happy through bribes then we would always be safe,” says Mabuza.
Officers were given a cut of between $100 and $150, police would rake in thousands of dollars from the different syndicates, adding heartily to their monthly salaries of $150.
Chikumira and Mabuza both say that the police were “much better” than the army, deployed in October 2008 to rid Chiadzwa of diamond panners. A three-week offensive by the military, Operation Hakudzokwi (no return), left an estimated 214 panners dead, according to HRW, in what has continued to be the centre of controversy over whether Marange diamonds are “blood diamonds” or not.
A flush of fear is visible on Chikumira’s face as he speaks about the military and says softly: “Those guys don’t take nonsense. If you work with them they get more than half of what you sell and leave the syndicate to share what’s left over.”
Quelling the discontent
In its June 2009 report, Diamonds in the Rough: Human Rights Abuses in the Marange Diamond Fields of Zimbabwe, HRW noted that the army’s presence in Chiadzwa was to “quell the discontent among its rank and file”.
Amid all the panning, bribery and violence on the diamond fields a bustling trade market emerged; “Mbare Musika” was nicknamed after Harare’s famous market. There, you could get anything: consumables, chicken, soft drinks, rice, shovels, hammers, torches and the essential services of osiphatheleni, the illegal foreign currency dealers. “And even women,” says Mabuza, adding that it was during the diamond rush that many people got infected with HIV/Aids. For many diamond panners the wanton danger of having unprotected sex is a minor hazard compared with the difficult and dangerous mining efforts at Marange.
Although mining for diamonds at Marange may have been a team effort, how the bounty was hidden was up to the individual, testing the panners’ aptitude for innovation.
“The most common method was to roll up the stones in brown paper and put them in a small plastic pack and pocket it. But this was really unsafe especially during police searches as they could easily find the stones,” says Chikumira.
More innovative ways included opening up one’s shoe soles and stuffing the stones in there, then sewing up the soles. Mabuza says: “People always bought a fresh pair of shoes just for that reason to hide their diamonds in. It was always funny seeing someone with a new pair of shoes in the forest, but it was better than losing your diamonds.”
Others stuffed the diamonds inside loaves of bread or sewed them into the hems of clothing; some swallowed the stones. “Other people had the guts to keep the stones underneath their tongue and could talk to police officers with the stones hidden there,” says Mabuza.
But selling the Marange diamonds was easy. “The stones were sold at per carat and the buyers often set their own prices after seeing the quality of the stones that you had. If your stone was cloudy and had cracks it definitely wouldn’t fetch much,” says Chikumira. On average most of the stones ranged between eight and 12 carats, with minimum offers at $50 a carat.
“One rare stone of 26 carats was once found by a man in the field and he was paid $7 000 for it and also given a T-35 truck by some buyers,” he says. But barter trade was a common practice at Marange, with miners getting houses and luxury 4x4s in exchange for their stones.
“It was not unusual to see either a Navara or Landcruiser in Marange as the big chefs [bosses] from Harare would come down to buy diamonds,” says Mabuza.
A diamond industry source who traded in Marange diamonds says: “Buyers tended to make price offers for the stones as the panners really didn’t know the true value of their diamonds. One could always bargain on prices as they [panners] were just interested in selling off their finds.”
It was after ACR’s mining licence was withdrawn that the full-scale commercial exploitation of the Marange fields was taken up by the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Company, in a joint venture with two Zimbabwean companies: Mbada Holdings and Canadile Mining. Shrouded in controversy, the companies have a complex shareholding structure that includes trusts, South African and Mauritian-based individuals and companies.
Among the shareholders is the South African scrap metal company, New Reclamation Group (NRG); insurance giant Old Mutual holds a 5.2% stake in NRG.
The awarding of the mining rights last year to companies with little diamond mining experience by Obert Mpofu, Zimbabwe’s mines minister, was a subject hotly contested by the country’s Parliament. But it was overshadowed by the government’s desperation to start generating revenue from Marange.
Recent estimates presented to government project that Marange can provide $200-million in monthly revenue for the state.
But last week, during his mid-term budget speech, Finance Minister Tendai Biti confirmed that Marange diamond sales of $30-million this year were unaccounted for by the treasury, exposing the loose controls in the diamond sector.
Despite the controversy surrounding thediamonds in Marange, however, Zimbabwe was recently given the green light by the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme to sell a portion of its stockpile of five million diamonds at an estimated market value of $1,7-billion.
For the panners who once operated there, however, life in Marange is a time better forgotten.
“I really don’t wish to live like that again ... there are so many risks involved and I’m just lucky to be still alive,” says Chikumira.
Mabuza is content with leading a normal life with his new wife and child: “I just want to be with my family now and not in the forest.”
* Not their real names