MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Risky Business: Those caught digging for themselves are often shot

Published by MAC on 2007-11-10


Risky Business: Those caught digging for themselves are often shot

10th November 2007

by Shawn Blore, Toronto Globe and Mail

The world's most treasured gemstone no longer finances Africa's bloody civil wars, Shawn Blore reports. But peacetime production hasn't made people in places like Angola any better off. A Draconian government and corrupt officials have made sure of that

CAFUNFO, ANGOLA -- High in central Angola, the town of Cafunfo stews in its own trash - shredded plastic bags, broken flip-flops, abandoned cola cans and flattened cartons for Sagres beer from Portugal. Not long ago, workmen digging a pit for the base of a cellphone tower in the local marketplace left behind a long low pile of earth that women began to scoop into sacks as soon as the crew downed tools for the day.

What's just dirt in most places is not in Cafunfo. Beneath its surface layer of detritus, the town - and Lunda Norte, the province surrounding it - are afloat on a sea of diamonds.

The women filled a few sacks before the police arrived, waving truncheons and saying to leave the dirt alone. The right to mine is vested solely in the government, which licenses just a few foreign companies. Ordinary Angolans can't even own a pick or shovel.

The threatening gestures of the police drew a crowd, someone tossed a bottle and, within minutes, junk was raining on the men in uniform, who huddled for protection on their precious pile. One went down before the riot squad arrived to restore order - and stand guard for a day until a truck from the nearest mine arrived to cart the gravel away.

It has been five years since this southern African nation of 12 million emerged from 30 years of vicious civil war, the last 10 of them financed largely by $3.7-billion in "blood diamonds" - mined by rebel forces under Jonas Savimbi.

Angola has used its peace to stamp out, often brutally, any "informal" mining, as it has given control of diamond areas to the foreign companies. This has led to a boom in production, but few benefits have trickled down to ordinary citizens. Instead, the profits have flowed to the capital, Luanda, either to fill the pockets of generals and government officials, or to vanish into the murky coffers of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who leads what Transparency International calls one of the world's most corrupt governments.

This wasn't what the agencies - Canadians prominent among them - that fought to outlaw conflict diamonds had in mind. But judging by the annual summit of diamond-producing nations in Brussels this week, the situation won't improve any time soon. Looking back, says Alex Yearsely of London-based Global Witness, "the issue was the use of diamonds to fund war. That was the fight we had to win."

In May, 2000, when representatives of the mining industry, humanitarian groups and countries that produce or consume diamonds met in Kimberley, South Africa, to devise a scheme to control the trade in rough diamonds, who should enjoy the benefits wasn't even discussed. "That was very much a side issue," Mr. Yearsley says. "Peace was our main goal."

As the Kimberley plan came into effect, Angola moved against an estimated half-million "informal" miners, many of them illegal migrants who were rounded up and sent home to neighbouring Congo.

'I have six children'

Not all the miners were outsiders. Villagers have long dug diamonds for a little cash.

In a gully not far from Cafunfo, young men are busy digging in a creek. "I have six children" is all Osmar Kilungo, 28, says when asked why he takes the risk. Growing manioc feeds his family, Mr. Kilungo explains, but provides no cash for things he must buy. "If God wills, we'll hit a pocket, find a few big stones," he says. But, in fact, the most promising sites in the area are all patrolled by armed guards.

Lunda Norte and Lunda Sul have been declared "reserve zones," in which all economic activity not linked to licensed diamond mining is pretty much prohibited. Just to travel here, Angolans must have permission. Goods brought in or out are subject to inspection and even fishing in a local river is forbidden.

Big mining operations enjoy broad powers of search and seizure - and they contract security companies often owned by moonlighting army or police officers.

The result is almost open season on locals. According to well-documented reports by Angolan journalist and human-rights activist Rafael Marquez, security companies often shoot illegal miners on sight and beat those taken into custody. Yet the harsh measures haven't been very effective. Last year's tally of just over 1.1 million carats in unlicensed diamonds is only 10 per cent less than that in 2001, before the crackdown began.

But the authorities have had greater success in expanding the formal mining sector. The high demand for diamonds has enabled the government to drive an extraordinarily hard bargain. All mines are joint ventures of Angolan and foreign companies, with the latter required to provide all the capital and take all the risk - in return for a minority stake. Even so, all the big companies are eager to do business and production has nearly doubled from five million carats in 2002 to almost 9.5 million last year. Employment, meanwhile, has jumped from about 5,000 to more than 10,000.

Roberto Kisebo is one of the lucky ones. He makes $950 a month driving an ore truck at Angola's largest mine, Catoca, a vast open pit near Saurimo, the capital of Lunda Sul. Although the pay is good by Angolan standards, it doesn't go very far now that the country's oil boom, which brought in about $30-billion last year, has driven up consumer prices almost to Canadian levels.

Still, with unemployment running at more than 50 per cent, Mr. Kisebo isn't about to make a fuss. "Any job you go in for, there are 10 men waiting in line," he says.

Government diamond revenue has more than tripled in five years, from $45-million to $165-million, but little of that windfall is on display in the areas that produce them. Roads that link major cities in the Lunda provinces haven't been repaired since the Portuguese left in 1975, and there is little treated drinking water, few schools and fewer clinics.

'A resource for of all'

Lunda Norte's governor , Manuel Francisco Gomes Maiato, says the poor state of virtually everything simply reflects 30 years of civil war. Although the government in Cabinda, the oil-producing state, receives a share of petro royalties, Mr. Gomes Maiato has not pressed for a similar arrangement for diamonds. "Our diamonds are a resource to be used for the benefit of all Angolans," he says, not just his state.

Democracy activist Landu Kama says the real problem is not a lack of funds, but a lack of ethics and government oversight. "There are projects in the budget to address these issues, but there is no scrutiny on government spending," says Mr. Kama, a founder of the Coalition for Reconciliation, Transparency and Citizenship. "So the projects get half-built or less than half-built. There are rigged bids or no bids at all. Corruption is our biggest problem. The money just disappears."

Some diamond money can be traced - not to the federal government's coffers, but to those of its friends. Under the bargain struck with foreign mining companies, 5 to 15 per cent of every project is set aside for an Angolan company required to provide "goodwill" but no capital or technical expertise.

In reality, "these companies are all connected in one way or another to government," says a diamond company executive, asking not to be identified. For example, a company called Lumanhe has five generals among its six partners; its take from three diamond ventures over the past five years approaches $140-million.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Energy and Mines says the joint ventures are part of the government's "Angolanization" strategy, but he adds privately that rewarding the generals is also a good way to forestall a coup.

Is there a better way to share the wealth? Alex Yearsely of Global Witness says African rulers must mend their ways, or "end up with an angry and alienated population."

Yet the issue wasn't even on the agenda of this week's diamond summit in Brussels and won't appear there soon, says Ian Smillie of Partnership Africa Canada. So he has launched a new organization, the Diamond Development Initiative, to improve the lot of the diamond digger.

This is a wise move, says activist Landu Kama, although he feels that civil unrest isn't much of a threat.

"We had the devil among us for 30 years," he says. "No Angolan will say he wants war to return."

'What are they going to do? We're the police'

Because traditional village digs have largely been eliminated, unlicensed miners have gone farther afield - to areas as difficult to reach as they are to control.

For example, hundreds of men work a huge open pit near the tiny village of Maludi, several hundred kilometres east of Cafunfo. Oddly, the police are there too, but they haven't closed the mine. Instead, miners leaving Nzaji, the nearest supply town, are stopped and charged a toll of $10 (U.S.). Then, at the entrance to Maludi, they are required to pay another $10.

When I arrived in town, the police arrested me. But after an afternoon and evening of discussion, a sergeant came to the conclusion that I might be interested in purchasing some diamonds, and so he explained how things at the mine site really work.

Rather than close the mine, he and his fellow officers decided to become suppliers, bankrolling the illegal miners with food and tools in return for half of the proceeds. They also set the prices for the diamonds, making the arrangement especially lucrative. And the miners rarely complain.

"What are they going to do?" the sergeant asked. "We're the police."

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