In a move some observers are calling an attempt to divert attention from alleged looting of diamonds from Zimbabwe's controversial Marange field, the Harare government has set up an expert panel to investigate alleged fraud by De Beers in years past.
Mines Minister Obert Mpofu and Deputy Mines Minister Gift Chimanikire say the South African-based diamond giant took rough stones from Marange but never declared their value to the state when it held prospecting rights for the alluvial field for 10 years.
De Beers International Relations Director Andrew Bone denied the Zimbabwean government’s allegations, asserting that De Beers prospected in Marange for less than two years, relinquishing its license in 2006 because the company does not mine alluvial deposits.The company, he said, held prospective rights for Marange for slightly under 10 years.
"De Beers concluded that the alluvial nature of the (Marange) deposit meant that it wasn't suitable for De Beers which seeks to mine primary sources," he said. "Prospecting is not mining. Mining requires a great deal of investment and the use and import of heavy machinery, and a great deal logistical support from road and air."
He said authorities in Zimbabwe would have been more than aware of any such activity if was taking place. "The fact they weren't indicates that De Beers did not carry out any mining," said Bone, adding his company "would like to see Zimbabwe fully compliant with the Kimberley Process, and we call on all involved to help the authorities achieve this.”
Authorities in Harare say De Beers told them it was looking for Kimberlite pipe diamonds which require deeper digging than alluvial diamonds, raising questions as to how the giant could have missed stones that local panners extract with hoes and hands.
Mpofu maintained that it is common knowledge in the diamond market that rough stones from Marange were being sold even before the government revoked a concession held by African Consolidated Resources of London in 2006 and took over the field.
ACR took up the mining claims for Marange soon after De Beers told Harare it did not intend to renew its concession. ACR has sued Harare and the case remains in court.
Chimanikire said Harare will take De Beers to court if the report by its new expert panel confirms Harare’s suspicions based on another earlier report.
Political analyst Charles Mangongera said the government’s launch of a probe into the De Beers role in Marange may be intended to distract attention from present operations in Marange by shadowy firms working in joint partnerships with Harare.
Human rights organizations have alleged serious abuses by Zimbabwean military units in control of Marange, and others say millions in diamonds are being smuggled out to the enrichment of a clique with close ties to President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.
The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme has attempted to establish monitoring of the development activity in Marange including the treatment of local residents, but the watchdog group is deeply divided over the appropriate supervisory role.