Surviving Gope

140 95 Rapaport News

RAPAPORT… There was a sense of deliberate coincidence that the Botswana government this week granted a mining license to Gem Diamonds for the Gope diamond deposit. The award came as the Kalahari Bushmen, also known as the San or Basarwa, appealed a court decision which has barred them access to water resources in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), where the Gope mine is being developed.

The plight of the Bushmen, and the impact that the mine will have on the community is a sensitive one, not only for any company mining in the area, but especially for the Botswana government, which is seen as a model of how a country can use its diamond resources to advance its development.

Drawing attention to the social issues surrounding the Gope mine has been largely due to the tireless campaign waged by Survival International. It has succeeded where other non-government organizations have failed, by bringing acute public awareness to ethical issues associated with the diamond industry.

Back in 2002, when the project was owned by De Beers, the group convinced supermodel Iman to quit as the face of De Beers over the issue. Just before the opening of the De Beers flagship Bond Street, London store in October of that year, activists famously changed the billboard outside the store by replacing Iman’s face with that of a Bushmen, and edited the De Beers slogan to read, “The Bushmen aren’t forever.”

The campaign was rooted in the eviction of the Bushmen from the CKGR in 1997 and 2002, which Survival claims was carried out to make way for the Gope diamond mine. Both the government and De Beers have vehemently denied that claim. The Bushmen subsequently took the government to court, culminating in a ruling on December 13, 2006, stating that the refusal to allow the Bushmen into the CKGR without a permit, and the refusal to issue special game licenses to allow the Bushmen to hunt, was “unlawful and unconstitutional.”  

Still, the court did not compel the government to provide services such as water to any Bushmen who returned to the reserve and a subsequent High Court ruling in July 2010 stated that the Bushmen were not entitled to access an existing water borehole or to drill a new one in the reserve. An appeal of that decision was launched this week and a ruling is expected towards the end of January. It is significant to note that the High Court has also ruled that diamonds played no part in the dispute between the Bushmen and the government.

Survival has also been critical of the consultations carried out by the government and Gem Diamonds with the Bushman. Jonathan Mazower, Survival’s advocacy director, told Rapaport News that the consultations required an independent party to carry out.

The government and Gem Diamonds appear to be satisfied that a report issued by Marsh Environment Services, and ongoing consultations with the stakeholders, was sufficient to give the mine the go ahead. Survival claims the consultations by Marsh missed the point. “The ‘consultations’ carried out by Marsh were supposedly to ascertain what the Bushmen thought about the mine,” Mazower explained. “They were not to offer them independent advice on what the impact of the mine is likely to be, how it might be ameliorated, what their rights in such a situation are, or anything else.”

Gem Diamonds was not available for comment about the social implications of the project, but said in a statement that it remains committed to implementing sustainable solutions to the environmental and community related issues in the CKGR. “We embrace the opportunity to continue our work with the project’s affected communities and other interested parties to ensure that the benefits of the Gope asset are realized for the community as a whole,” chief executive officer (CEO) Clifford Elphick stressed. 

Gem Diamonds bought the Gope mine from De Beers in May 2007. Gope will not be a major mine on the Jwaneng scale and has an estimated resource of about 20 million carats over an approximate 30-year life. Its development will require a significant investment by Gem Diamonds as the company is planning to construct an underground mine given the depth of the kimberlite pipe, rather than the less complicated open pit method of mining. The company said it will reveal the mining plan in March when it publishes its financials.  

In the meantime, Survival appears to be doggedly moving ahead with its campaign. In November, the group returned to its old stomping ground on Bond Street to launch a new boycott of Botswana diamonds with a protest outside the De Beers store, since, as it argued, De Beers is part-owned by the Botswana government.

Mazower said that the group is now waiting for the judgment regarding this week’s water case appeal, and to assess the government’s subsequent response, before it plans its next step.

Ultimately, however, the group is targeting Botswana diamonds and tourism, two of the country’s economic growth engines, in its boycott strategy. It also continues to enlist celebrities and claims that Gillian Anderson, Quentin Blake, Joanna Lumley, Sophie Okonedo, and Mark Rylance have all pledged not to travel to Botswana or wear its diamonds until the Bushmen are allowed to live on their ancestral lands in peace.

While most of these are not necessarily so-called A-list celebrities and are not likely to garner as much public interest as Iman did, stakeholders in the Gope mine should certainly take note.

Even if Gem Diamonds doesn’t carry the same sex appeal, or exert the same influence as De Beers, Gope presents a possible public relations time-bomb that could explode at any moment. Gem Diamonds has the luxury of not being the industry custodian that De Beers was when it owned the mine and invested millions of dollars to promote diamonds to consumers. Still, Gem Diamonds does have an image of being a fast-paced, upcoming company to uphold, not to mention the involvement of some high profile shareholders, including Laurence Graff, who would not be immune to a protest or boycott.

It is not a stretch of the imagination that this Kalahari headache was the real reason De Beers decided to divest from Gope, rather than the stated reason–no matter how valid–that it was pulling out of non-profitable assets. However, given the site of Survival’s November protest and as much as it tries to avoid it, De Beers is still affected by the Gope– Kalahari Bushmen saga, as is the rest of the industry.

One would not expect De Beers to re-engage in the Gope debate. Rather, it is up to the Botswana government to be completely transparent and fair regarding its treatment of the Kalahari Bushmen. And if the government is indeed satisfied that all the correct measures have been taken to ensure that basic human rights, such as the availability of water, are afforded the Bushmen, then it ought to make that message better known.

As it is, Botswana would be well served to strengthen its brand, as to date, marketing ‘Botswana Diamonds’ has been left to private diamond manufacturers, the De Beers clients operating there, and De Beers itself. Regardless of how diamonds have benefitted the country—, and there is much that is good–public opinion is fickle and corporate social responsibility is becoming an increasingly important factor. In light of the campaign pursued by Survival on behalf of the Bushmen, and the ongoing court case, Botswana’s positive message may be somewhat vulnerable.

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