Global Policy Forum

Diamond Fields are Like the Wild West Lucapa


By Mercedes Sayagues

Africa Information Afrique (AIA) (Zimbabwe/Canada)
March 12, 1995

The guest house at the Sociedade Mineira de Lucapa (SML) was brimming with officers from the Angolan army's most feared unit, the Commandos. They were in this small but crucial mining town in Angola's diamond belt for a clean-up operation, to rid prime SML land of illegal miners, called "garimpeiros." Lucapa is 750 kilometres east of Angola's capital Luanad.

The Angolan Government wants to eliminate wildcat prospecting, or "garimpo," to boost sagging diamond revenue in the provinces of Lunda South and North. Sources from the diamond sector estimate that illegal operations yield four times more than official government production. According to one insider, illegal production in 1995 yielded 3.9 million carats worth US$460 million. Official production is estimated at 535,000 carats, worth slightly under US$150 million.

In September 1995, President Eduardo dos Santos introduced a scheme called PROESTA to stabilise the diamond sector. One measure is a clampdown on garimpeiros panning on government concessions. Diamond mines held by the rebel movement National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA) were exempted from PROESTA. SML, a joint Portuguese venture associated with Angola's state company ENDIAMA, has invested millions of US dollars in mining equipment but only one of its seven mines is operating because it is too dangerous.

Mining experts say prospecting endangers national diamond reserves because industrial exploitation is not economically feasible on the pot-holed land left by garimpeiros. Seen from above, the deep scars along the river banks look like anthills turned inside out, resulting in dramatic soil erosion and siltation. The clean-up is dangerous. The military and SML say they warn the "garimpeiros" well in advance with megaphone anouncements and leaflets dropped from a helicopter. Traditional chiefs and garimpeiro gang leaders are warned, as are the handful of United Nations military observers in Lucapa. As the warnings come through, before the red-beret Commandos march upon the digging sites and burn settlements, garimpeiros start moving out, heavily armed with AK-47s. Those who defy the warning and remain, risk their lives.

The first military clean-up operation in November 1995 eliminated garimpeiros from an SML digging site. Estimates of casualties vary - local missionaries say more than one hundred died, while military and mining officials say there were just a handful. Not all the garimpeiros are poor local peasants. From the air, one sees brand-new equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars being floated down the reddish river in search of safer waters - as well as thousands of bare-chested, ragged men who look for diamonds with little more than a pan and a shovel. "They have no shame," a mining official laughs wearily.

Thousands of garimpeiros streamed into the Lundas after 1991, when market liberalization, weakening state authority and relaxation of controls in these formerly closed provinces opened access to wildcat prospectors from as far as Brazil and the Philippines. Many fled when civil war flared up again in November 1992 and UNITA occupied large areas of the Lundas, seizing rich diamond fields and mining installations. Others remained, making deals with UNITA to surrender some of their diamonds in exchange for protection. This is Angola's Wild West, where people get on with their daily lives armed with enough firepower to conduct a terrorist campaign.

Yet violence here is insignificant compared to Luanda. People here walk in the market wearing gold chains and watches or carrying plastic bags full of diamonds, which would invite mugging in Luanda. Cars and homes are left unlocked. Miners and traders offer diamonds worth many thousands of dollars without glancing over their shoulders - in Luanda one worries that a cheap camera will be stolen. "People go to the market with two or three thousand US dollars in their pockets to do the weekly shopping and don't get mugged. But let one person not honor their word, or play dirty, and he is a dead man," explains Alberto Lumbua, Lucapa's municipal administrator.

For the garimpeiros, finding diamonds worth several hundred dollars each does mean wealth. Goods are five times more expensive than in Luanda. A beer goes for US$5 in Government-held areas, and for US$15 in UNITA held areas. A 50-kilogram bag of cornmeal costs US$100. And, although the land is lush and green, only a few scattered plots of beans and cassava can be seen from the helicopter. Women tend these while the men feverishly dig for diamonds. Whether Unita or the government controls a diamond area is irrelevant to the welfare of locals and garimpeiros.

At the market in Calonda, near Lucapa, a ragged, barefoot garimpeiro offers a diamond for US$200, just 20 percent of its final price. "I dig and dig all week, I find diamonds and still cannot eat meat," he complains. It is a crazy place, where a child in rags walks into a makeshift shop and pulls US$600 out of his pocket - enough to buy cornmeal, dried milk, rice, soap, toilet paper and cocoa. Traders have a different view. At Calonda, a trader offers three small diamonds at US$1,000. "What do I care if I spend US$100 or 200 on food daily if I am making US$1000 to 2,000 every day?" This trader crosses between Government and UNITA-held areas, buying diamonds. He says because people in UNITA areas are less knowledgeable about prices and quality, he can drive a hard bargain.

"Everybody is digging," he says. "Army, police, commandos, they all do it." A mining official agrees: "The police may say they have 100 or 150 men, but in fact they will only have 50 on duty while the rest are looking for diamonds." Although by law only Angolans are allowed to deal in diamonds, Malian, Senegalese, Lebanese, and Belgian traders ply the Lundas, in both Government and UNITA areas. "Lucapa's diamonds have a lovely colour, large size and good weight, and are considered to be the best in the world for making jewellery," says gem expert Jose Gomez. Yet, because of Angola's long-running civil war, which began before independence in 1975, the diamond industry has only skimmed the surface. "There are diamonds all over Angola, whole provinces have not yet been prospected. The reserves will last well into the 21st century," says Gomez.

Along the rivers of Bie and Kuando-Kubango provinces, people are prospecting, albeit on a small scale. As the economic crisis caused by the war pushes more Angolans into destitution, prospecting becomes more attractive.

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