The Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe’s most iconic image.
At the start of 2003, the baton of the Chair of the Kimberley Process, the international body charged with coordinating the system that prevents the infiltration of diamond associated with civil conflict into the legitimate chain of distribution will pass from the African state of Botswana to its neighbor, the Republic of Zimbabwe. Ten years ago, such a scenario would have been considered unthinkable.
For much of the first two decade of the current century, Zimbabwe was considered an international pariah. Led by an authoritarian and increasingly brutal president, who had headed its government since end of minority white rule in 1987, the nation that once was considered Africa’s agricultural superpower had seen its economy spiral to a point that it could no longer feed its own population. The primary reasons were a series of haphazard populist policies introduced by the Mugabe regime in an ultimately futile attempt to hold onto popular support, and crippling corruption that reached up to the very highest echelons of government.
Unlike other southern African states, Like South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Angola, Zimbabwe was not considered to be a major diamond producer, at least until 2006. A mine had come on stream at Murowa in the south of the country in 2004, operated by Rio Tinto, but it was relatively small and had little impact on world production.
But then in June 2006, of deposit of alluvial diamonds were discovered Marange, in the Chiadzwa district, in the east of the country near the border with Mozambique border. A British-owned company, African Consolidated Resources (ACR), held exclusive rights to the fields.
However, when geological analysis revealed the economic potential of the discovery, with some estimates suggesting that Marange may contain reserves worth as much as $800 billion, Mugabe’s government revoked ACR’s license and allowed in unlicensed miners. An uncontrolled diamond rush followed.
A HUMAN RIGHTS CATASTROPHE
It soon became apparent that Zimbabwean police exploiting the miners, with syndicates established to collect bribes. There also was a sharp rise in smuggling, with most goods being moved across the border to Mozambique.
Then, the situation appeared to settle, but toward the end of 2008 the number of artisanal miners at the site swelled once again, and the Mugabe regime decided it needed to crack down. On October 27, 2008, the Zimbabwean army was sent into the area and reports by society groups soon told of soldiers shooting miners and local civilians, sometimes from helicopter gunships. More than 200 people allegedly were killed.
Pressure mounted on the Kimberley Process to act, but its hand seemed to be tied, because technically, since Zimbabwe was not in a state of civil war, its output could not by classified as conflict diamonds by KP rules.
But as the World Diamond Council reports in its October newsletter, already in 2008 the KP was expressing “growing concerns” about the Marange and in June the following year, following a review mission to the country, it was decided that the country was no longer KP compliant, and a recommendation was mad that its be suspended until military forces were withdrawn from Marange and illegal mining and sales ended.
At the November 2009 KP Plenary in Namibia, Zimbabwe and other participants agreed on a joint plan, by which Zimbabwe would agree to a ban on diamond exports until monitors were in place and the government had demonstrated progress. The ban did not include the Rio Tinto mine which continued to export during all that time.
On November 3, 2011, the KP’s ban on Marange diamonds was officially lifted. The decision was controversial, leading to the withdrawal of some civil society groups from organization. Certain countries imposed their own sanctions, such as the United States, and there are retailers that avoid purchasing diamonds sourced in Zimbabwe to this very day.
Mining alluvial diamonds in the Marange region of Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabwean army on parade in a post-Robert Mugabe world.
A CHANCE AT REDEMPTION
The decision by the KP Plenary in November 2021 that Zimbabwe would serve as KP Vice Chair in 2022, and automatically assume the position of KP Chair in 2023, was controversial, given the country’s difficult history.
But, as WDC reported in its newsletter, the decision was cautiously welcomed by leading members of the country’s civil society community.
“This is an opportunity for Zimbabwe to clean up its act,” said Farai Maguwu, Director of the Center for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), speaking to Foreign Policy magazine. “There cannot be any semblance of injustice towards workers, communities, or the environment when the whole world is looking at Zimbabwe.”
A similar attitude was expressed by Shamiso Mtisi, the former Coordinator of the Civil Society Coalition in the KP and the Deputy Director of the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA). “A country cannot violate the KP in the same year it holds an important position,” he told Foreign Policy. “There is a lot of scrutiny, so this is the time for Zimbabwe to reform its way of doing things.”
WDC reported that in private conversations as well Zimbabwean civil society representatives noted a marked decrease in human rights violation in the country’s diamond regions, since the 2021 KP Plenary at the country was named KP Vice Chair for 2022 and prospective head of the body in 2023.