The Treasure and Tragedy of Marange

By Sarah Logan

Mathieu Yamba, the Chairman of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, in late June announced the lifting of a ban which had formerly prevented the sale of diamonds mined in the Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe. The Kimberley Process’ role is to certify the source of rough diamonds as being free from any conflict financed by the production of such diamonds and to ban diamonds that are not considered to be conflict-free. Yamba’s announcement followed a meeting of the Kimberley Process in Kinshasa, and it prompted civil society members and non-governmental participants to walk out in protest as it is still widely believed that Marange diamonds continue to be tainted by gross human rights violations and, as such, their sale should remain prohibited. 

The Kimberley Process’ decision to lift the ban on Marange diamonds is premature, with the Zimbabwean government having made little or no concrete progress in bringing the Marange fields into compliance with the minimum requirements of the Kimberley Process.

The ban on the sale of Marange diamonds had been implemented by the Kimberley Process in November 2009 after they had sent a Review Mission to Zimbabwe, which found that widespread human rights abuses were being perpetrated in the Marange fields. It was apparent that Zimbabwe's armed forces were overseeing and enforcing the forced labour of miners, many of whom were children, and the armed forces were subjecting local villagers and suspected illegal miners to torture, forced labour, rape and arbitrary arrest. Many more were severely assaulted and left to die, or were simply killed. Miners recounted having seen colleagues being buried alive, and reports indicated that the local prison held approximately 1600 prisoners, some 1300 more than the prison's capacity. Diamonds mined amidst such abuses were then smuggled across the border into Mozambique, where they were sold on to foreign buyers in direct violation of the ban on Marange diamonds.

The lack of administrative control, mining infrastructure and adequate security at the Marange fields is largely a result of the sudden and unexpected manner in which the diamond fields themselves were discovered and established. Minor earth tremors in 2006 induced by significant pressure against the dam wall of Lake Kariba brought diamonds to the surface. Villagers emerging from their homes after the tremors found nearby fields shimmering – this was later determined to be Africa’s largest diamond find of the decade. Rumours about fields glittering with diamonds spread like wildfire across impoverished Zimbabwe, which has suffered political turmoil, rampant hyperinflation, soaring unemployment and acute food shortages. Thousands of opportunistic “miners” flocked to Marange overnight to scratch in the earth, under extremely hazardous conditions and with little or no safety equipment, for the precious gems which promised to put food on the table and to pay their children’s school fees.

These illegal miners were desperately vulnerable and were easy prey to Zimbabwe's armed forces, who also wished to share in the spoils of Zimbabwe's unforeseen natural wealth and who seized the opportunity of Operation Hakudzokwi, the military takeover of the Marange fields, to force villagers and illegal miners to dig at gunpoint. Operation Hakudzokwi (Operation No Return) was initiated in October 2008 and was so named because its supposed aim was to ensure that illegal miners never returned to Marange. Records show that over 200 villagers and suspected illegal miners were killed during Operation Hakudzokwi, predominantly from gunshot wounds.

It was during such violence that the Kimberley Process' Review Mission visited the area and concluded that the “unacceptable and horrific violence against civilians by authorities”, as well as the prevalence of illegal mining and sales of diamonds, necessitated a ban on the export of Marange diamonds as they could not be certified as being conflict-free.

It is interesting, however, to look closely at the Kimberley Process' handling of the Zimbabwe situation, as it was unprecedented in several ways. Notably, embargoes established by the Kimberley Process on conflict diamonds are generally applicable to an entire country, but in this instance, it was solely the diamonds mined in the Marange fields that were banned, not those mined elsewhere in Zimbabwe, in areas presumably free from human rights abuses. Furthermore, instead of merely establishing a blanket ban on Marange diamonds, a Joint Work Plan was created by the Kimberley Process in tandem with the Zimbabwean government, which gave Zimbabwe six months to bring itself into compliance with the minimum requirements of the scheme. Additionally, two public auctions of Marange diamonds were held in 2010 under the close observation of the Kimberley Process, with the aim of generating funds needed to drive the rebuilding of Zimbabwe's devastated economy.

These developments in the Kimberley Process protocol, carefully engineered for Zimbabwe’s unique situation, are especially interesting in light of the fact that the Kimberley Process' narrow mandate does not extend beyond preventing the sale of diamonds intended to finance insurgent or factional violence against legitimate governments. Technically speaking, the Kimberley Process has no jurisdiction to prevent the sale of diamonds on the basis of government-sponsored violence, child labour or any manner of forced labour taking place, regardless of whether such violence constitutes gross human rights abuses.

The stance was taken by the Kimberley Process to intervene in Zimbabwe nonetheless, but to develop a unique manner of addressing the Marange crisis. This shows a close consideration of Zimbabwe's circumstances, but also raises a number of questions. Not only did they limit the diamond sales ban to Marange diamonds, but they allowed for public auctions of these diamonds and lifted the ban in circumstances where, arguably, human rights violations have not been totally eradicated. In light of such decisions, it is apparent that the Kimberley Process has attempted to accommodate the interests of the Zimbabwean government in their adoption of a relatively soft approach to the country’s trade in conflict diamonds.

This may have been done out of a realisation that if the Kimberley Process was uncompromising in their treatment of the Zimbabwean government, Zimbabwe would simply walk out of the voluntary organisation. This approach may have also been taken because the Kimberley Process lacked the confidence to deal firmly with a matter beyond their official jurisdiction. Either way, one has to wonder whether taking into account the interests of the Zimbabwean government is just and fair in circumstances where the Zimbabwean government is itself a perpetrator of the human rights abuses. One also has to wonder why this has been done seemingly at the expense of those people whose rights have been and continue to be violated in Marange, those same people whom the Kimberley Process was established to protect. Ultimately, the core question is whether the Kimberley Process continues to have any effectiveness or relevance in addressing today’s trade in conflict diamonds.


Sarah Logan is currently practising as an attorney in Johannesburg, predominantly in commercial law, although her interests and true passion lie in working towards the attainment of democracy and good governance in Africa, and the achievement of the social and economic betterment of all of Africa’s people.


11 July 2011