After the Mines

Schuylkill County, Pa., stands as a testament to life in a mining community without a mine. Formerly eastern Pennsylvania’s thriving capital of anthracite coal country and the setting for many of novelist John O’Hara’s stories of greed and power, the county now has the third-lowest per capita income in the state. With few jobs to entice its young people to stay, its population is both aging and dwindling, and real estate values are significantly lower than elsewhere in the state. The great coal mines stand silent, grass creeping over the gaping pits.

This is not the kind of future De Beers envisions for Africa. In the 1950s, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer set forth this mission statement for Anglo-American/De Beers: To produce value for shareholders but in a way that’s socially responsible and beneficial. It was a novel approach in an era when businesses rarely considered environmental or social concerns. Today, now that conflict diamonds have thrust the jewelry industry into the forefront of global human rights issues, a proactive approach to social responsibility is critical.

Diamond mining is a dirty business—quite literally, as at least 100 tons of earth are moved for every carat found. It has a tremendous impact not only on the environment but also on the people left behind when the mine is exhausted and the mining jobs go away.

Just as De Beers’ historic structure as a cartel and, more recently, its Supplier of Choice program haven’t endeared it to the U.S. government or the jewelry industry, its vast mining operations have drawn criticism from some African groups such as the Bushmen in Botswana, who claim that diamond mining has forced them off their native land. But diamonds have brought significant growth, development, and prosperity to many parts of Africa, and De Beers—neither the saint its supporters proclaim nor the ogre its detractors believe—has a strong social conscience and a significant list of good works to its credit.

Recently, the company began hosting a series of trips for both trade and consumer journalists to visit its mines and witness firsthand some of its efforts to leave southern Africa a better place than it found it.

Partnership for sustainability

Venetia, a former copper mine, is De Beers’ newest mine and the largest producer of diamonds in South Africa. It came on stream in 1992 and produces about 5,000,000 carats per year. Its workforce numbers 929 and is expected to grow to about 1,400 in a few years.

While African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela had been freed from prison two years before the mine opened and was working with then-president F.W. De Klerk to bring about the end of apartheid, it wasn’t formally abolished until the country’s first multiracial elections in 1994. When the mine opened, the local government still didn’t allow “mixed” (black and white) living, so De Beers—uncomfortable with segregated housing—decided to bus the workers in from where they lived; many workers still live far away and are bused in daily.

The Limpopo Province, where the mine is located, is one of the poorest and most rural areas in South Africa. The average income is seven to eight rand a month (approximately $1.25-$1.30), and running water is scarce. Yet, thanks to a partnership between the Venetia mine and the department of education for the area, almost 1,600 children in the area are getting an education at the Masete Primary School. De Beers got involved with the school about three years ago. It donated the chairs used in the classrooms and is working on a project to build flush toilets to replace open latrines.

The Masete program is an example of De Beers’ insistence on working in partnership with local or national governments on community improvement projects. In this case, for every rand De Beers spends, the government spends 1 million rand. The goal, says Venetia Mine’s Bob Govender, is sustainability—i.e., if the mine ceases to exist, financial involvement from the government ensures the project still moves forward. De Beers has been involved in similar projects with other schools, but this is the largest and best-funded by the government.

The Masete Primary School houses first through seventh grades (ages 6 to 13) and serves communities as far as 25 kilometers (approximately 15 miles) away. There are 33 classrooms and 52 teachers. There is one bus, arriving at 6:30 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m., but many students walk. Many of the teachers travel farther than the students, others live on site in corrugated metal huts smaller than a typical American backyard tool shed. Temperatures can soar to well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in spring and summer and drop below freezing in winter. Yet the students at Masete (some pictured at left) are happy, neatly turned out in their school uniforms, and eager to learn.

Most classes are taught in English. Primary grades are taught in their native language (primarily Northern Sotho), but from fourth grade on, the children are taught in English and also must learn Afrikaans. The curriculum includes math, general science, history, geography, and life skills. When they graduate from Masete, those who go on to secondary school will learn about careers, but at the primary level most children are more concerned with daily survival and basic life skills like finding firewood and growing vegetables in the school garden. HIV/AIDS awareness is also taught. With about 30% of the adult population of sub-Saharan Africa infected, education and awareness posters and billboards dot the highways and hang in virtually every public restroom and office (including De Beers’), and condoms are widely and freely distributed.

The Venetia mine’s latest project, slated to begin in January 2005 and finish in April, is to build modern toilets at the Masete school. Water is scarce in the area, so waste water from the toilets will be treated and purified and used to irrigate the students’ vegetable garden. Students not only learn how to grow vegetables in the small garden but also sell their harvest—to the tune of R500 a year.

De Beers’ funding isn’t just about giving the money, says Govender. The company plans to supply project engineers to make sure the buildings last and to make sure the money they invest is spent as effectively as possible.

De Beers’ spokesperson Nicola Wilson says, “The problem with [De Beers] funding in cooperation with the government is that there’s so much need [throughout South Africa] that the government sets all the priorities. It’s our hope that the more we spend on projects of the government’s choice, in time the government will spend on projects De Beers wants to fund.”

In a village near Masete, Venetia Mine also has funded an egg-farming project. Each family is given 18 chickens, four bags of feed, and a coop. The family raises the chickens and sells most of the eggs, using the profits to buy more feed. They also plant vegetable gardens, using chicken droppings for fertilizer.

De Beers’ one non-negotiable requirement is that the government be a full partner, ensuring that economic gains are sustained once the mine is gone.

The company has set up its own charitable fund, the De Beers Fund, which supports various educational projects. Wilson notes these tend to emphasize math and sciences over humanities or liberal arts. “The future of South Africa is likely to be heavily technical,” she says.

De Beers also is working to build a unified nature park across South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe on the Mapungubwe Heritage site. Once the mine goes, Wilson says, the economic future of the area will depend on tourism.

Going to the dogs

The African wild dog (lycaon pictus) is a highly endangered species. Considered extinct in 23 countries of Africa, the species faced total extinction only a few years ago and today numbers between 3,000 and 5,000. A farmer’s nemesis, a small group of wild dogs can kill a cow in minutes. But while man has contributed to the decline of the wild dog population, lions are its greatest natural enemy.

In South Africa, the only viable population of these large-eared, wide-roaming dogs (pictured right) is in the Kruger National Park. Outside the park, small populations have been reintroduced in isolated areas, one of which is De Beers’ Venetia-Limpopo Nature Reserve. The reserve, which spans more than 80,000 acres adjacent to the Venetia Mine, is owned and managed by De Beers under the direction of manager Warwick Mostert.

A pack of 16 wild dogs was released into the reserve in January 2002. They were dubbed the Venetia Pack. Five adults were fitted with radio collars to allow Mostert and other biologists to track the pack. In May 2002—fall in South Africa—one male and one female broke away and formed a new pack, dubbed the Limpopo Pack. Since then, both packs have produced several litters of pups.

Expert rangers such as Mostert contribute not only to the preservation of the species but also to the future of eco-tourism, as the tracking of the dogs and other protected species is a great point of interest for visitors on game drives. According to De Beers, three jobs are created for every tourist that visits.

The Venetia Mine’s Graham Main discussed the importance of environmental management and rehabilitation. “The three pillars of sustainable development are economic, environmental, and social. While profitability drives the engine, it’s not the only focus. It must include improving the quality of life and a commitment to mitigating the environmental impact. Diamonds are a natural product, and there’s a natural environmental link.”

Main identified a 1:6 ratio of mining to conservation—i.e. for the [Venetia] mine’s 31,500 hectares, there are more than 190,000 hectares (469,300 acres) set aside for conservation.

Biodiversity is a critical component of De Beers’ commitment to sustainable development, he says. Its three biodiversity objectives are conservation, sustainable utilization, and equitable benefit sharing. The company works in areas with delicate ecological balances, and its goal is to enhance the land it owns as well as the adjacent land.

“Business has a responsibility to care for the environment, as well as to care for the communities [on it] and leave a sustainable legacy post mining. We want to leave the land better than we found it.”

De Beers’ conservation areas operate as separate, viable business units. Some are focused solely on conservation, while others also offer tourism opportunities and recreation to employees and surrounding communities.

Rather than taking a reactive approach to environmental problems, Main stressed a proactive approach, including rare-game building and reintroducing endangered species such as the wild dog, African elephant, and black rhinoceros; research, education, biodiversity, gem wealth, and identifying and following best practices.

Recent and current studies include those on wild dog behavior; African white-backed vulture breeding and foraging; ecology, behavior, and social organization of the black-footed cat; ecology and behavior of the aardwolf; and population dynamics of lions.

“We’ve established research centers where scientists from all over the world can come study, not just De Beers people,” says Main. Conservation agencies around the world suffer from lack of funds, and Main believes the future of all conservation lies in public/private funding partnerships.

“De Beers has been doing [conservation] for more than 100 years, not just since the World Summit on Sustainable Development [held in Johannesburg in 2002],” he notes. “This is not ‘checkbook charity.’ We have demonstrable success on our own land with our own professionals.”

Next month, JCK reports on the relationship of diamonds and De Beers to the present and future development of Botswana.