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Zimbabwe Government Seizes Diamond Mine

  • Peta Thornycroft

A week after winning a court order to be allowed to continue mining, a British mining company has been denied permission to return to its claim in the Marange Communal lands in Manicaland province where a diamond rush began three months ago. Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA, this is the first time the government has sought to expropriate a mine.

The British mining company, African Consolidated Resources, began a trial mining operation at one of its two claims in Marange Communal lands in Manicaland province last week. A day after the work began, Assistant Police Commissioner Olbert Denge ordered the company to shut down and told employees of the company to leave immediately.

The company then went to court in Mutare, provincial capital of Manicaland, about 250 kilometers east of Harare, to seek permission to be allowed to continue to mine. It won the court case, but so far, the police have not permitted it to resume operations.

Reports of diamond findings in Manicaland started in September. Soon people were pouring onto the claims owned by African Consolidated Resources from all over Zimbabwe, as well as from neighboring countries. Some say it was the largest diamond rush in Africa in the last 100 years.

Dirk Benade, a veteran geologist, says world class mining machinery could not have moved as much earth as the poor, first time miners who within a month had manually dug out a million tons of dirt. He describes the conditions they worked under as appalling.

"It was terrible, it was shocking, 10,000 people digging within two meters of each other; there were no toilet facilities; there was no water; in fact, you could buy diamonds with water," he said. "A lot of local tribeswomen were coming here with water and buying diamonds with water. So it was terrible, nowhere to sleep, they all slept huddled in gullies, or wherever they were, and the flies just became a huge, huge, huge problem. It was absolutely terrible."

At first, the surface mining was encouraged by the government. The mine ministry, however, ordered the diggers to sell their stones, mostly industrial diamonds, to the government.

But the new miners say the government was offering far lower prices than private gem traders who traveled to Manicaland from around the region, particularly South Africa.

One of those who dug for stones and then became a trader himself is Sabo Sauke, a peasant farmer, who longs for a regular job.

Unlike most of those who rushed to the diamond fields, he lives close by. He said it was hard work, but he made money - about $10 million Zimbabwe, which was enough to buy roofing materials for his house, some chickens and other items, now considered luxuries, for his new wife.

He said after he and thousands of other diggers were chased away by the police late November he had hoped the British mining company would give him a job. But now that prospect is doubtful since the government order closing the company's operations.

Sauke was skeptical the Zimbabwe government would be able to mine nearly as effectively as the mining company.

"I don't think the government has money to operate this area, because sometimes there is no petrol, no food in the country, some prices are going higher and higher, there is no foreign currency, to operate this one. I don't think so," said Sauke.

Andrew Cranswick, a Zimbabwean and the chief executive of African Consolidated Resources, said he believes the government will eventually let the company return and begin mining its claims.

Cranswick said minerals were, for some years to come, the answer to Zimbabwe's failing economy. He said even though four-thousand white farmers had their land expropriated, he did not believe his company would suffer the same fate.

"There is a lot of political background to the land issue that does not historically apply to mineral rights," he said. "We are a Zimbabwean led and founded and managed company, but registered in Britain. We have brought in a large amount of foreign investment into the country into mining exploration, and we intend to bring a lot more, we have projects in a number of minerals not just diamonds, are doing a lot for the development of the country, I think the Zimbabwe government would never allow illegal seizure of claims without due process."

Officials from the Ministry of Mines declined to comment on the diamond field in Marange. The state press, which usually reflects government opinion, maintains that the land is owned by the state, and that African Consolidated Resources has no legal claim to the diamond fields.

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