All That Glitters Isn't Good – The Real Cost of Diamond Mining

Vegan Life looks at how the obsession with diamonds has led to environmental damage, wildlife loss and conflicts


For many, the day you get engaged is one of the most wonderful days of your life. However, plucking up the courage to ask someone to spend the rest of their life with you is a terrifying task and it’s no wonder that opening a box containing a sparkling bribe has been a tradition for centuries. Over time, diamonds have come to symbolise love and, due to our comparison culture, demand for bigger, clearer diamonds has slowly increased over the years.


Indeed, diamonds may be girl’s best friend but our obsession with them has led to catastrophic environmental damage, wildlife loss and bloody conflict in many countries. The industry has managed to mask these damning facts from consumers and most of us are unaware of the impact the diamonds which adorn our ears, hands and necks are having on the earth.


Diamonds are found in 35 countries around the world and, according to the US Geological Survey, Botswana, Australia, Congo and South Africa have the most plentiful naturally occurring diamond reserves. Although, there are also significant reserves in Angola, Sierra Leone and Namibia.


The reason that these countries are blessed, or cursed, with diamond reserves is unknown. There are several different theories about exactly how diamonds form in the Earth’s mantle (about 90 miles beneath the surface of the earth), but it is generally agreed that immense pressure and heat is needed to form these natural gems deep below the surface of the earth.


They are subsequently transported to the surface through volcanic activity including a special type of magma called kimberlite which rises to the surface through volcanic
pipes and large eruptions, carrying the precious diamonds with it.


Since their first discovery it has been clear that humans have a natural fascination with diamonds. This fascination has led to an increase in demand and consequentially, prices have soared with yearly increases of around 4-6 per cent. With demand continuing to grow and enormous amounts of money up for grabs, environmental and animal welfare concerns can be disregarded in favour of greater profit margins and gains for shareholders.


This is not expected to slow anytime soon. With known diamond fields being depleted, remote areas rich with mining potential are being discovered. The development and preparation of these areas for mining has disastrous impacts on the local environments, communities and wildlife. In addition to this, much like landfills, mines require maintenance and monitoring beyond closure to ensure that the local environment is unaffected by the mining activities.


The World Diamond Council have said: “It must be recognised that mineral extraction by its very nature of mining does have the potential to impact the environment unless carefully managed.”
However, issues arise because in many cases mines are not carefully managed.


Africa is a resource rich continent and is home to around 30 per cent of the world’s natural mineral resources including platinum, gold and diamonds. But, it is also a capital poor country and, as such, mining in African countries poses many uncertainties and risks.


Foreign investment, especially from China, is fuelling the mining boom we are seeing across Africa, and especially in Zimbabwe. The scale and speed at which this development is progressing means that environmental considerations are often tossed aside in favour of engorging potential profits. Africa has some of the most valuable ecosystems in the world, notably the rainforests of central Africa and the Rift valley savannas, which are in danger of being wiped out by mining activities destroying thousands of trees and removing valuable carbon sinks.


Habitat loss to make way for roads and railways to transport excavated materials from the mines is thought to be the biggest threat to wildlife populations. Infrastructure construction means that trees are cleared and local flora is destroyed. Animals lose their habitats and are at a higher risk of being hit by vehicles.


In addition, as these relatively untouched areas become more accessible, it is not uncommon for commercial bush meat hunters to enter the area. Commercial bush meat hunters kill animals to supply local cities with meat for consumption similarly wildlife traders capture live animals for the pet trade or to be transported and used as medicinal products. This poses a threat to many endangered species.


In countries such as Canada these problems are muted and mining activities are managed more carefully. However, all diamonds have an impact, no matter where they come from. There are many animals, such as caribou, which migrate across this vast country. New roads can disrupt these traditional migration patterns, especially if the roads are close to sensitive calving grounds. A 2009 study found that migrating caribou diverted over 10km from their traditional routes to avoid the diamond mines. It is clear that this mining affects these beautiful animals.


So, how exactly does diamond mining affect the environment?


By far the most problematic environmental concern is the pollution of waterways. Machinery used to extract diamonds often leak hydrocarbons such as fuels, oils and drilling fluids, which can leach into waterways through the soil. Research has shown that negative effects can extend for as far as 20 miles from polluting mines.


Pollution in the form of acid mine drainage also needs to be monitored to ensure the health of the environment surrounding diamond mining activities. Acid mine drainage is a long-term problem and needs to be monitored long after mines close. Acid mine drainage occurs when minerals, such as sulphides, are brought to the surface via excavation of soils. These minerals oxidise to form acids, such as sulphuric acid, which dissolve heavy metals from soils. These metals and acids do not occur in such quantities at the surface naturally and therefore the toxic mixture can devastate the natural balance of water bodies, including groundwater and aquifers. The US Environmental Protection Agency has said that acid mine drainage is the most serious environmental concern for the mining industry.


Acid mine drainage can have a severe impact on aquatic ecosystems. As this toxic cocktail leaches into streams and rivers, it lowers the pH of the water (it becomes more acidic). Acidic water can cause adult fish to die and stop fish eggs from hatching. High levels of acid can also kill plants which are eaten by aquatic species, reducing food availability for fish.


Typically, a pH between 6.5-8.5 is considered healthy; some acid mine drainage has been found to have a pH as low as -3.


The acid mine drainage problem is only increasing; in South Africa it is estimated that acid drainage from diamond mines increased by 36 per cent between 1956 and 2003.


Pollution of water bodies in close proximity to mines can be exacerbated by overextraction. Diamond mining is a water intensive activity and therefore, especially in warmer climates, clean water can become a scarce commodity close to diamond mines. The reduced water flow as a result of extraction means that pollutants are not diluted and the potential negative effects of pollution are increased.


The pollution of water sources does not just have an environmental impact on the water quality and aquatic life, but on the animals which drink the water downstream of diamond processing facilities and the people who bathe in and drink the water. There have been many reports that animals that drink the water from the Odzi River, a tributary of the Save River in Zimbabwe, are falling ill and dying and humans are developing rashes. Although it has not been confirmed, this could be a result of acid mine drainage lowering the pH of the river.


Another significant environmental impact of diamond extraction is the clearing and removal of vegetation and soil.


In South Africa it is estimated that The De Beers diamond company have destructed land corresponding to approximately 2,000 football fields. The vast size of areas being cleared is destroying animals’ habitats, and clearing biologically significant plant species across Africa.


Common sense dictates that this habitat destruction and environmental upset is not beneficial for the animals living in these areas, worldwide biodiversity or the health of our environment.
What is it all for? Diamonds are not an essential commodity and we do not need them to survive. The destruction is utterly unnecessary.


Think on this. 1,750 tons of earth must be extracted to find a 1 carat rough diamond — the average engagement ring diamond size is around 1.25 carat. Is one ring worth the destruction?
In some countries there are strict environmental laws which ensure that environmental damage is minimised, if not eradicated completely. However, in some, environmental concern is minimal.


Zimbabwe is a country in political turmoil and therefore the environmental impact of mining here is thought to be catastrophic. Andrew Mambondiyani is a Zimbabwean environmental journalist for Think Africa Press and has been speaking out about the environmental impact of diamond mining in Zimbabwe, which is one of the poorest countries in the world with endemic poverty and rife unemployment. Mambondiyani has reported concerns that large diamond processing plants are directly polluting the Odzi River with toxic effluent and raw sewage. However, Zimbabwe’s diamond industry very firmly props up the political dictatorship there and Mambondiyani’s voice, and many voices like his, are being silenced.


The ZANI-PF Party is currently led by President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980, and has been strongly linked to mining companies. Earlier this year it was widely reported that Mugabe’s spy agency secretly controls a mine in the Marange region, one of the best known diamond fields in the world. The activities of the diamond company, Kusena Diamonds, are thought to be directly funding ZANI-PF Party campaigns and enriching the corrupt political elite in Zimbabwe.


Indeed, a research team led by Paul Collier at the World Bank, found a strong correlation between armed conflict and dependence on natural resources such as diamonds, gold or oil. Conflict diamonds, also known as blood diamonds, have become more known as a result of the 2006 film starring Leonardo DiCapro. Diamond mining has funded and fuelled many brutal conflicts in African countries such as Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia resulting in the death of thousands of people. Furthermore, terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda are also thought to be linked to diamond extraction.


As a result of the increased awareness of troubles surrounding diamonds in the early 2000s, the UN set up The Kimberly Process in 2003 in an attempt to clean up the diamond trade. Member states set up import and export systems for rough diamonds and 81 countries including Zimbabwe, Angola, Liberia, South Africa and Sierra Leone are part of the The Kimberly Process. However there have been criticisms of the process, especially following the UN’s decision to reverse their previous position and allow exports from the Marange diamond films, one of the most notorious conflict diamond sites and the site of the Kusena Diamond mine, thought to fund Mugabe’s regime.


Diamonds are not a need, they are a want. The murder, habitat destruction and environmental pollution associated with diamond mining is utterly unnecessary. Despite this, our obsession has led to war, organised crime, murder and environmental damage. However, you needn’t give up your dream of a sparkling ring sitting atop your fourth finger or dangling from your earlobe. The manmade diamond industry is increasing rapidly.


MADE Diamonds create luxury, ethical and cruelty-free engagement rings set with diamonds created in a laboratory. Each ring is handmade in Britain by their small team of skilled goldsmiths. The people behind MADE Diamonds have been in the fine jewellery business for over 30 years and it was their adoption of a vegan lifestyle some years ago which prompted a realisation of the need to change their business to align more closely with their values.


Buying a ring knowing that no trees were cleared, no animals lost their habitats or their lives and the environment was not polluted is the best of both worlds.


Don’t worry about what you already have on your finger; veganism is about doing the best we can, not berating ourselves for our past decisions. But, we do need to think about the future and educate people about the impact of diamonds mining so that we can change the future for the people, places and animals suffering for our sparkle.


The lifestyle magazine written by vegans for vegans.