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ZIMBABWE: ‘We Too Want to be Wealthy’

CHIADZWA, Zimbabwe, Jun 24 2010 (IPS) - Saddled with debts of more than $7 billion, Zimbabwe is anxious to resume diamond exports, suspended in May amidst international condemnation of alleged human rights violations in the Marange diamond fields. But the treatment of people living in the fields themselves suggests the country’s record on rights bears further examination.

A Jun. 21-23 meeting of the Kimberley Process, the diamond industry’s monitoring organisation, failed to reach consensus on whether Zimbabwe’s diamonds should be certified as conflict-free. Even before the Tel Aviv meeting concluded, Zimbabwe had announced it intended to resume exports of the precious stones.

Following discovery of diamonds in 2006, thousands flocked to the Marange diamond fields around Chiadzwa, 300 kilometres east of the Zimbabwean capital Harare, to dig for diamonds: herders and house girls turned into overnight millionaires.

Government shut the bonanza down in October 2008, but villagers are fighting against relocation to make way for commercial mining.

Diamonds a town’s best friend

Fighting to stay in the game

"The discovery of diamonds in our area should have been a blessing not a curse," says Newman Chiadzwa, who is leading the villagers' fight against relocation.

Chiadzwa, a leader in the villagers' fight against relocation, has had diamonds confiscated by the government in the past, and been accused by the government of misrepresenting himself as a traditional chief - a charge he denies. He lives in a house he values at 700,000 U.S. dollars and clearly has an important personal stake in negotiations over the claims of local residents.

He is the chair of the Chiadzwa Community Development Trust, formed by villagers to to defend their interests. CCDT is calling for a stake in any deals that the government negotiates with private investors over the exploitation of diamonds.

At the height of the unlicensed mining in 2008, as many as 20,000 men and women were working in the area, and the villagers were amongst those who profited.

“I have a fleet of taxis operating in Mutare,” says Sebastian Maguda, a teacher at Chakohwa Primary School. “I made money and now I am a businessman. But I keep my job as a teacher in case the police decide to hunt down those of us who made our money from diamond panning.”

The Chiadzwa area is studded with ostentatious palaces built by locals who profited from the boom time, satellite dishes look up to the skies, powerful generators growl in the yards while top-of-the-range cars belonging to successful traders roar down the gravel roads.

But the diamond rush was not an unmixed blessing. A female trader at the Chakohwa business centre who preferred not to give her name said, “The illegal diamond dealers helped change our lives in a big way. They offered to buy everything from water and food to sex.”

Newman Chiadzwa, an influential figure in the area, agrees. “There were many vices that were imported to this area together with the illegal diamond dealers who came from many parts of the country. People moved around villages stealing goats and chickens. They used to stay in the mountains, cutting down trees, putting up fires everywhere and this turned out to be bad for the community.

“Our women were even afraid to go and fetch firewood in the bush because of the many incidents of rape,” Chiadzwa says. “Prostitution thrived under the circumstances because many sex workers from around Zimbabwe flooded Marange in search of diamond money.”

The government of Zimbabwe sent army and security details to Marange in October 2008 to clear the area in an operation widely condemned for its disregard of human rights. The security forces are alleged to have committed murder, rape and press-ganged young children and women into forced labour.

Taming the diamond fields

The government wants to resettle roughly 1,800 households to elsewhere in the Odzi river basin to clear the way for full-scale mining. The villagers have vowed that they will only move after being compensated to their satisfaction.

Mbada Mining Private Limited is one of a handful of companies already operating in the Marange fields. The company is a joint venture between the government’s Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation and a little-known South African company, Core Mining.

“We have undertaken a massive housing project and crop input scheme for the relocated families from Chiadzwa. Villagers who have had their farming period affected by the relocations would be provided with food aid. We are going to make sure that the villagers do not starve as we will be providing grain to the needy,” Mbada Diamonds chairman Robert Mhlanga told IPS.

“The government is yet to start relocating people to Odzi but we are still making arrangements, it’s not an overnight job,” says Elton Mangoma, Minister of Economic Planning and Investment Promotion. “There is still very little infrastructure that has been put in place and we feel we cannot just throw people away.

The government says it has completed building on 260 of the 900 plots to which the villagers are supposed to be relocated, and successfully sunk 10 of 18 planned boreholes while work on renovating schools and clinics in the area is in progress.

It has also promised to carry out a proper evaluation of the properties owned by the affected villagers so they can be fully compensated. The villagers have also been assured that they will get first preference in securing jobs created by the discovery of the diamonds.

Future not promising

But the commercial mining operations are highly mechanised, requiring only a fraction of the previous work force. The villagers also argue the relocation process is not being conducted in a transparent manner.

“There is no information about compensation. We don’t know how this so-called compensation will be calculated,” Chiadzwa told IPS. He also refuted government claims that the new site is being readied.

“Nothing has been built in Odzi, there are no proper pastures for our livestock, schools and clinics are very far away, the nearest clinic is about 10 kilometres away.”

The Chiadzwa Community Development Trust, formed by villagers to to defend their interests, accuses the companies of operating without conducting an environmental impact assessment. But the Harare High Court dismissed the Trust’s lawsuit on this matter in January.

At the Chakohwa bottle store, one villager told IPS, “Everyone had found something life-changing to do in diamond panning but now it’s back to square one. These companies hardly employ people from here. All their operations are highly mechanised, there is nothing left for us.”

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