Thursday, May 28, 2009

CBC: Blood diamonds in Zimbabwe

From CBC:

Zimbabwe, a country beset by poverty, cholera and political violence, also possesses great mineral wealth, and lately there have been allegations of government involvement in the theft of mined diamonds and killings of local panners, CBC News has learned.

Under military control since late last year, the Marange diamond fields in Chiadzwa — potentially one of the richest diamond deposits in Africa — were seized by the government from a private mining company called African Consolidated Resources in 2006.

It is an alluvial field, meaning many of the stones just sit on the ground, ready to be scooped.

Tens of thousands of people — doctors, teachers, lawyers — impoverished by President Robert Mugabe's decades-long regime, had descended on the area, which lies near the border with Mozambique.

The fields are off limits to the media, but a CBC crew recently got in by joining the convoy of a local MP. They toured through the heavily guarded villages that surround the fields to meet with people who said they witnessed the killings, and their aftermath, first-hand last year.

Lovemore, a former telecom worker-turned diamond panner, said he saw soldiers shoot some of his fellow panners. "Yes, some were killed because of this diamond," he told the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault.

A cemetery worker near Chiadzwa showed Arsenault a mass grave that he said contained the bodies of 68 people who were allegedly slaughtered in that campaign. He produced dozens of burial orders filled in December — names unknown.

A local mortician also said he saw those bodies. "They were found in the field, beaten by soldiers, beaten by police," he said, adding he also observed gunshot wounds.

The Zimbabwe government vehemently denied the allegations.

"Only three people died as a result of infighting among the diamond panners, and the culprits have been arrested and they are actually going through our court of law now," said Obert Mpofu, the country's minister of mines.

He dismissed the idea of a mass grave. "It is totally fantasy. It is totally false. I don't know what people want to achieve by doing this."

The government also denied that military and other officials were benefiting directly from illegal panning in the fields.

"We are on top of the situation, and there is not even a single illegal diamond activity now because of the measures we are taking," Mpofu said.

However, a former military officer, who used to work in Chiadzwa, and was able to produce some industrial and gem-quality diamonds fresh from the fields with just a few hours notice, refuted that assertion.

"That's a lie.… It's only those with connections who are now able to dig and profit," he said. "It is the soldiers and police who are manning the area who allow you to go and dig, and when you dig, you show them what you have. Sometimes they take the diamonds and go sell them for their own profit."

His story was consistent with what other panners told the CBC.

The former officer also said that at night he had seen soldiers digging and then handing over their finds to powerful people.

"They come during the night, take the diamonds, and share them with senior government officials," he said.

Diamond profits unshared

The government is vague when queried about how much is mined and where the money goes. Some people, like the local MP, believe diamond profits could help to solve many of the nation's problems — if only they could be shared.

After uncontrolled inflation, Zimbabwe's once thriving economy has collapsed. About one-quarter of its population has fled, with most of those who remain depending on food handouts. Poverty and AIDS have taken a toll, slashing life expectancy to 37 years for men and just 34 years for women.

The MP is trying to set up a trust for villagers to receive some of the mining proceeds and is also pushing for immediate short-term relief — to help build a proper medical clinic for example.

The existing clinic, which serves 8,000 people, is little more than a ramshackle two-room shed with a caved-in roof, few medications and two exhausted nurses.

And yet it stands on land that may be rich enough to offer hope of a cure for much of what ails Zimbabwe.

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