24 May 2012: Report

The Pollution Fallout From
Zimbabwe’s Blood Diamonds

The regime of President Robert Mugabe has been accused of profiting from the Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe, garnering illicit funds that could be used to bolster his oppressive security forces. Now critics are alleging the government is failing to stop mining-waste pollution that is sickening livestock and local villagers.

by andrew mambondiyani

The Marange diamond fields, sprawling across 250 square miles of semi-arid scrubland and forest in eastern Zimbabwe, have been an infamous example of so-called blood diamonds. The outside world first learned about Marange in 2008 when police and soldiers loyal to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe violently cleared out thousands of small-scale miners, killing more than 200 people in the process, according to Human Rights Watch.

More recently, as Zimbabwe’s government has solidified control over the fields and brought in foreign partners to help exploit one of the world’s largest troves of diamonds, a second human rights group, London-based Global Witness, has alleged that top officials in Zimbabwe’s military and security forces hold key positions in Marange’s diamond mining companies. Nick Donovan, senior campaigner at Global Witness, warns that diamonds could become a “cash cow” for Zimbabwe’s repressive regime. “If the next election is accompanied by violence there’s a real risk that any bloodshed will be funded by diamond revenues,” he says.

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Zimbabwe Diamond Mining

Photo by Tendai Muranda
Workers for a joint venture between a Zimbabwean firm and a Chinese company, Anjin, excavate diamond mines in Marange.
Now, the impoverished residents who live near the mines have another cause for concern. Cattle drinking water from the Odzi River downstream of diamond processing facilities have been dying, residents say. Numerous local officials and leaders of civic organizations contend that people who have bathed in the river have developed rashes and other skin ailments, and that other residents have grown ill after drinking river water. Farai Maguwu, director of the Center for Research and Development, a human rights organization in the nearby city of Mutare, said he is concerned that large diamond processing plants on the Odzi are releasing toxic effluent and raw sewage into the river, which flows into the larger Save, or Sabi, River.

Maguwu, local politicians, and the area’s representative in Parliament say that for decades villagers drank from the Odzi River and did not experience widespread health problems. But after large-scale diamond processing began in 2009 and intensified in the past year or two, complaints have mounted of human and animal ailments stemming from drinking river water. A local herdsman, Richford Maramba — standing near the Odzi River amid scattered mopani and acacia trees — said that two of his cows had died in recent weeks after drinking from the Odzi. He estimated that more than 100 cattle from nearby villages had died in the last year from drinking river water. “We don’t know what these diamond companies are discharging into the river,” said Maramba, squinting into a scorching sun. “But whatever it is, it is not good for us and our livestock.”

Figuring out what, exactly, the diamond companies are releasing into the Odzi River is a daunting task, given the tight security at the mines, the ties of the mining companies to Mugabe’s regime and his ZANU-PF Party, and the lack of transparency in Marange diamond operations. Only in February and March of this year were opposition politicians and members of Parliament taken on tours of the Marange diamond fields, which by some estimates hold 25 percent of the world’s diamond deposits. Those tours were tightly restricted.

Lawmakers were denied access to local villagers, and two other reporters and I were arrested while interviewing villagers about mining pollution. We were held by the police for six hours and charged with “criminal
Two other reporters and I were arrested while interviewing villagers about mining pollution.
nuisance.” Those charges are still pending.

Shamiso Mtisi of the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association said he and other representatives from civil society organizations raised the issue of pollution with diamond company executives. According to Mtisi, senior company officials said they had created some ponds where they were discharging tailings from the mines, but that no toxic waste was going into the river.

“They denied that waste materials are harmful,” said Mtisi. “We are still [intending] to carry out our own independent analysis of the water.”

Environmental laws in Zimbabwe are lax and are unlikely to be strictly enforced, especially against companies with close ties to the Mugabe regime and the ZANU-PF Party. One of a handful of companies mining and processing diamonds in Marange is Mbada Diamonds, whose chairman is Zimbabwe’s former Air Vice Marshall Robert Mhlanga, according to Global Witness. He also reportedly was Mugabe’s personal pilot, Global Witness says.

Mbada is a 50-50 joint venture between Marange Resources Ltd., which is owned by the state-run Zimbabwe Diamond Mining Corporation, and Grandwell Holdings Ltd., a subsidiary of Reclam, a South African scrap metal company. In its 2011 annual report, in which it is required to discuss potential environmental liabilities, Reclam noted that it was generally less
The company noted that it was less expensive to pollute and pay fines than pay for pollution controls.
expensive to pollute and pay the fines in Marange than to pay for the installation of pollution controls.

“As part of its diamond mining operations,” the Reclam report said, “Mbada uses various chemicals and produces overburden and wastewater, which could have a negative impact on wildlife and vegetation of adjacent areas if improperly discharged. In addition, hazardous materials, such as explosives used in mining operations and solvents, are used to clean, refurbish and maintain mining, processing and other equipment.

“These activities are subject to a number of laws and regulations relating to environmental protection. Fees are assessed for exceeding agreed limits on emissions and effluents. Currently these fees are generally small in relation to the cost of environmental protection equipment and it is generally less expensive to pay the fees than to install anti-pollution devices. Further, the applicable laws do not generally require clean-up of environmental pollutants, and when clean-up is required, the applicable laws provide no guidance as to the extent to which the clean-up must be carried out.”

Reclam’s annual report cautioned, however, that should enforcement of environmental laws become more stringent in the future, Mbada might be required to make “significant capital expenditures.”

Another well-connected company mining and processing diamonds in Marange is Anjin Investments, a joint venture between a little-known Zimbabwean company, Matt Bronze, and a Chinese construction company, according to Global Witness. Among the members of Anjin’s board are the permanent secretary of Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Defense, two commissioners of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, and current and former officers of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, according to Global Witness.

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Zimbabwe Diamond Mining

Photo by Tendai Muranda
Security guards search workers for contraband diamonds at a diamond processing facility in Marange.
One mining expert who works in Zimbabwe, Terry Kundidza, said diamond-bearing gravel was processed using a technology called dense medium separation. Kundidza, who has been working in the diamond mining industry for over a decade, said ferrosilicon — an alloy of silicon and iron — was used as the dense medium separation material.

He said that diamond ore was placed into a ferrosilicon mix, scrubbed, cleaned, and processed, while material that was no longer deemed profitable is dumped. At the end of each operation, the ferrosilicon is reclaimed from the process stream using a magnetic separator and recycled, but losses of ferrosilicon could occur, leading to contamination when the waste is discharged into water bodies, Kundidza said.

“Ferrosilicon is a toxic and irritant substance, hazardous to human health,” said Kundidza. “Hence adequate protection is needed from accidentally inhaling or ingesting the material.”

Zimbabwe’s Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Management, Francis Nhema, recently said that some companies in Marange were in breach of environmental laws. He said all diamond-mining companies are required by law to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment report before they can be granted licenses to operate, but that some companies had failed to do so.

An official at a local health center, who requested not to be named for fear of reprisal from her superiors, said there had been a surge in cases of skin rashes since the start of large-scale diamond mining and processing in
A health official reported a surge in cases of skin rashes since large-scale diamond mining started.
Marange. But she said that until testing of river water and effluent from the processing plants is carried out, it is difficult to link the mining and processing with the rashes.

Other legislators said that more than 50 people had been treated for skin rashes and that they are concerned about the long-term health effects since villagers do not generally have wells and rely on the Odzi and Save for drinking water.

Marange’s multi-billion dollar diamond reserves have brought hope to a country suffering from years of economic collapse. According to the Mines and Mining Development Ministry, the diamond mines could generate more than U.S. $4 billion a year in revenues.

Opposition politicians have accused Mugabe’s close ally, Obert Mpofu, who is the minister of Mines and Mining Development, of not remitting proceeds from diamonds to the Zimbabwe’s treasury, fueling speculation that ZANU-PF was stashing away diamond money to finance a bloody campaign ahead of the impending general elections; Mpofu has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Finance Minister Tendai Biti — a member of the Movement for Democratic Change, which entered into a coalition government with ZANU-PF after the 2008 election that was widely denounced as fraudulent — has expressed concern that diamond revenues are being misappropriated. Biti said he had anticipated U.S $600 million annually from the diamonds for the national budget. During the first three months of this year, Biti said, Zimbabwe’s treasury was expecting U.S. $122.5 million from diamond sales, but by March 21, only U.S $30.4 million had been remitted. Anjin remitted no diamond proceeds to the government in the first quarter of 2012, Biti said.

“Clearly we fear as the Ministry of Finance that there might be a parallel government somewhere in respect of where these revenues are going, and are not coming to us,” Biti told reporters last week. “There is opaqueness and unaccountability surrounding our diamonds.”

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The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, established to end the trade in blood diamonds, last November cleared three diamond companies working in the region — Mbada, Marange Resources, and Anjin — to auction their diamonds internationally. After that action, Global Witness withdrew from the pact, citing the approval as a prime reason for its decision. The U.S., the European Union, and the United Kingdom have imposed restrictions on trading diamonds on several of the companies operating in the Marange region.

Despite assurance from the diamond companies that they are not polluting the Odzi and Save rivers, local residents remain unconvinced. Said Zakeu Nhachi, a councilor representing some of the affected areas, “Many people and livestock have been affected. Affected animals lose their fur and ultimately die. We have tried to engage the companies, but we have not succeeded.”

POSTED ON 24 May 2012 IN Business & Innovation Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Africa North America 

COMMENTS


This article is spot on, we hope the Zimbabwean government is going to act on pollution. Or if it does not act we hope the international community will force the government to act.

Posted by Chaka Zulu on 24 May 2012


This is the best article I have ever read about Zim. About time someone tackled the pollution. Gutsy!

Posted by Vanessa Lamers on 26 May 2012


I really envy Andrew's bravery considering that he is based in Zimbabwe but still write such a good article under very difficult conditions.

Posted by Ken Grath on 30 May 2012


I worry about the mine workers' health and safety as well. If these companies are dumping significant levels of toxins into the surrounding environment, the pollution inside the gates must be atrocious. Let's hope the pressure stays on to improve the situation in the Marange fields not just for the benefit of Marange workers and the nearby communities but for all Zimbabweans.

Posted by Leah Butler on 06 Jun 2012


Comments have been closed on this feature.
andrew mambondiyaniABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Mambondiyani is a Zimbabwe correspondent for the UK-based magazine, Think Africa Press. His work has won numerous honors, including the Environment Africa Award for reporting on the effects of global warming and climate change on rural communities in Zimbabwe. He has also served as a Knight Science Journalism fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In March 2012, Zimbabwean authorities arrested Mambondiyani on charges of “criminal nuisance” for interviewing villagers about mining pollution; Mambondiyani was released and those charges are pending.

 
 

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